By K. Joseph Spears

The search for MH370 is arguably the longest, most expensive, complex and extensive search and rescue operation in history. It involved over 26 countries using a variety of military and commercial marine, aviation and underwater assets in the last 11 months. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 370, a Boeing 777 200ER with 239 persons on board on a scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, has highlighted the very real challenges and gaps in remote oceanic and Arctic flights. These included: lack of real-time tracking of aircraft, gaps in existing radar coverage, technical and weather-related challenges facing search and rescue efforts from the air, the need for international cooperation and interoperability, and technical challenges inherent in remote oceanic searches and recovery. There is much to be learned from past and ongoing search activities for MH370, with many lessons applicable to Arctic SAR. The Arctic Council recognized the importance of this which led to the signing its first international agreement on the subject of search and rescue.

MH370 remains missing without a single trace of debris or physical evidence having been found. To date, Australia has reportedly spent over $100 million on this search and recovery operation. MH370 lost radar and radio contact in the Gulf of Thailand in a handoff between Malaysian air traffic control (ATC) and Vietnamese ATC. MH370 simply vanished. Without real-time tracking of the aircraft, finding it was as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Canada has international obligations for maritime and aviation SAR under international agreements, as well as under the recently signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (“the SAR Agreement”) which is an international treaty concluded among the member states of the Arctic Council on 12 May 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland. In addition, as a coastal nation, Canada has obligations to provide search and rescue capability under the Law of the Sea Convention. As part of the SAR Agreement, Canada extended its search and rescue region to the North Pole. The combination of these agreements requires Canada to have a capable SAR capability which takes sustained funding, commitment, as well as technical development and international cooperation. MH370 needs to be a wake-up call to develop responses to the shortcomings that plagued the search for MH370.

Primary radar is used by ATC to passively identify that there are objects in the skies. To make an active association of a “blip” on the screen and a specific aircraft, pilots are asked to undertake certain manoeuvers which can be tracked on ATC screens. There is no primary radar coverage over about 70 per cent of the earth’s surface. In developed nations, secondary radar, an active rather than passive system, allows ATC to automatically query aircraft within range, to which their transponders respond with identifying information, as well as information about altitude and position. In the Arctic, secondary radar coverage is scant. While NORAD operates an extensive air defense radar system, its capabilities are classified. Unlike the IMO mandated automatic identification system (AIS) for vessels, with global satellite coverage and shore based radar, there is limited real-time tracking mandated by international regulation under the United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for passenger aircraft.

The problem this creates is clearly highlighted in MH370. The aircraft’s transponder had been deliberately turned off, resulting in its final position being determined by relying upon a limited dataset. MH370 sent out a secondary communication signal to a geostationary satellite over the central Indian Ocean that is used as part of the global INMARSAT satellite communication system. It was only after the crash of MH370 that secondary satellite data were examined using the “handshakes” that the INMARSAT satellite had concluded with the data streaming communications system aboard MH370. As part of the aircraft’s engine maintenance program, engine data are uplinked to a satellite from the aircraft and then relayed to Rolls-Royce in the U.K., the aircraft engine manufacturer, which monitors engine performance for maintenance planning purposes. It has been determined by theoretical calculation that the aircraft crashed into waters about 1,000 miles west of Perth, Australia, which are up to 16,000 feet deep. In reality, the search site is nothing more than an educated guess as to the location of the haystack. To date, no trace has been found of the aircraft. This in contrast to the 2009 disappearance of Air France flight 447 that crashed in the South Atlantic off Brazil. In that case, even though the crash position was known, it took two years to recover the aircraft’s flight data recorder from a depth of 13,060 feet.

A similar incident could happen in the Arctic, a remote region shrouded in darkness for half the year. Aircraft carry an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), but in the case of MH370, it did not activate when the aircraft crashed. Had the mandatory ELT been activated, the signal would have been picked up by a satellite tracking system with global coverage operated by Cospas-Sarsat, which is an intergovernmental cooperative of 43 countries and agencies that maintains a network of satellites and ground facilities to receive distress signals from ELTs and routes the alerts to the proper authorities in more than 200 countries and territories.

This is a highly effective system and was used quite effectively when the Lunenburg, N.S.-based sailing vessel Concordia sank off the Brazilian coast. National Defence’s Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Halifax was able to convince Brazilian authorities that the distress signal was from a tall ship filled with students, and not a false alarm (all were rescued). The satellite system notifies the closest rescue centre to where the beacon is registered.

K. Joseph Spears has a long-standing interest in SAR both on the policy and operational side. His interest in Arctic SAR was piqued in 1980 when he was involved in a cliff rescue of a research scientist involving the Canadian Coast Guard and Canadian Armed Forces. He has assisted the National SAR Secretariat and lectured to Canadian Rangers 2CRPG on the subject. Joe can be reached at