MH370 search vessel damaged in rough weather

Giant waves caused by rough weather in the MH370 search area. James Hancock / ATSB

One of vessels involved in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was called back from the search area after giant waves damaged its deep tow system.

Although the initial plan was to undertake the repair work on-site, GO Phoenix ran out of bottled oxygen and acetylene needed for welding, forcing the ship to return to the port of Fremantle for resupply, said the Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC).

“The vessel arrived in Fremantle on 8 June. When GO Phoenix departs, the vessel will return to the search area, conducting repairs en route,” said JACC, which provides weekly updates on the progress of ongoing underwater search activities.

Underwater search on the Indian Ocean floor, started 6 October 2014, have involved 4 vessels – GO Phoenix, Fugro Discovery, Fugro Equator and Fugro Supporter (joined in January, 2015) sweeping the seabed.

Fugro Supporter withdrew from the search mid-May after adverse weather started to affect automated underwater vehicle (AUV) operations and is not expected to return soon due to coming winter conditions in the southern hemisphere.

The two other vessels – Fugro Discovery and Fugro Equator are currently continuing search operations despite bad weather and rough seas in the area.

The weather is forecast to be moderate over the next few days, but will worsen on the weekend. Search operations will continue through the winter months, but pauses are anticipated as maximum wave heights reaching up to 12 metres on some days.

The aircraft, a Boeing 777-200ER, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared off radar over the South China Sea, less than an hour after takeoff on 8 March 2014 with 239 people, including 12 crewmembers on board.

Transport Ministers from Australia, China and Malaysia announced on April 16 that they would double the current search zone to 120,000 sq km to “cover the entire highest probability area identified by expert analysis” if no trace of the missing plane is found by late May.

The search into the expanded area has already commenced, with search efforts focused in the south to take advantage of the last of the usable weather in that area.

More than 50,000 sq km of the seafloor have been searched so far with no clue found.

The extended area will constitute about 95% of the calculated flight path of the plane, but searchers hope they will find a trace in the current search zone by late May.

The high priority search area has been drawn based on “handshakes” between the plane and a communications satellite.

As the plane’s transponders, which transmit the plane’s location to air traffic controllers, were manually switched off from inside the cockpit, hourly satellite pings were the only interaction kept live for hours – after which investigators believe the aircraft ran out of fuel.

Investigators said in the initial report that movements are consistent with the deliberate action of someone on the plane.

At the request of the Malaysian Government, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) is leading the underwater search for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean.

Fugro Discovery encounters rough conditions in the Southern Indian Ocean as the search for MH370 continues through the winter months. Source: ATSB, video by Mike Williams.