LONDON, March 25 — Hours after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished on March 8, Inmarsat Plc pulled together team of engineers thousands of miles away at its London headquarters for a marathon data-crunching session to help find the missing jet.
Their mission: piecing together the few signals picked up by an Inmarsat satellite to direct the search effort, which in the initial phase focused on the Boeing 777’s flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. After a week of study, the data revealed two plausible, if surprising, trajectories — one heading north into central Asia and one south toward Antarctica.
The breakthrough, which helped dramatically narrow the search corridor, was based on research using the so-called Doppler effect named after 19th-century Austrian physicist Christian Doppler, who explored how movement can alter a signal profile. After establishing a broad flight path, the team hunkered down to pinpoint a more accurate possible crash site.
“They worked together for six or seven days straight,” said Inmarsat spokesman Chris McLaughlin, with the international team unwinding at the in-house gym during breaks or fetching pizza to sustain the round-the-clock mission. “What we discovered was that the northern projected path had no correlating pings appear on it, while for the southern projected path, we had frankly an absolute correlation. The plotted positions, the plotted lines all matched each other.”
The teams, meeting in the glass-coated Inmarsat headquarters that borders London’s financial district, compared equivalent data from flights of other Boeing Co 777 jets in and out of the area to see where the Doppler effect would result in a pattern that matched the data from Flight MH370.
Inmarsat was set up in 1979 as an intergovernmental organisation to provide satellite communications for ships. It operates three constellations of 10 satellites in geostationary orbit 35,786 kilometres (22,200 miles) above the Earth.
The company counted Deutsche Telekom AG, Lockheed Martin Corp and BT Group Plc among early investors before private-equity firms Apax Partners LLP and Permira Advisers LLP Ltd took it over in 2003. Inmarsat sold shares for the first time in 2005.
The team’s breakthrough came on March 21, when the group was able to rule out the northern corridor and hone in on the lower end of the southern axis, McLaughlin said by phone. By the end of the weekend, the Inmarsat team — supported by the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) — had pieced together the evidence needed to inform Malaysia’s authorities.
“The new analysis was convincing enough for the AAIB to brief the Prime Minister that the aircraft flew in the southern corridor,” Malaysian acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein told a press conference today. “This type of analysis has never been done in an investigation.’’
The AAIB confirmed that it worked with Inmarsat, and that it cannot comment further on the investigation.
Malaysia Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak presented the findings to a global audience during a late-night press conference yesterday, in which he proclaimed that the plane’s voyage had ended in a remote part of the Indian Ocean, a revelation he attributed to Inmarsat and the AAIB’s findings.
The mathematical model has played a crucial role in a search mission now in its third week, with no trace of any debris to match the aircraft and a crash site. While countries from Australia to China have rushed planes and ships to the site thousands of miles west of Perth, Australia, the vast field and bad weather have so far not resulted in any findings.
The plane probably ran out of fuel west of Perth, Malaysia Airline System Bhd Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters today at the Kuala Lumpur press conference, with no hope of finding any survivors in one of the most hostile parts of the planet weeks after a crash.
Authorities said today that Inmarsat would keep working on its research to further whittle down the search area, with the engineer’s findings so far the most tangible breakthrough in a mystery that has otherwise remained puzzling for a global audience transfixed by the disappearance of a large aircraft.
“That’s the best they can do with the information available to them,” said Robert Mann, a former American Airlines executive and aviation consultant based in Port Washington, New York. “That’s the limitation, as you’re forced to innovate.” — Bloomberg