Are there any lessons to gain from MH370?

Finding debris from missing flight will help the families but is unlikely to make the skies safer

Part of the wing of missing flight MH370 is thought to have washed up on Reunion. Raymond Wae Tion / EPA
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With the recovery of more debris strongly suspected to have originated from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a vexing aviation mystery is much closer to being solved. If confirmed, it offers strong support to the prevailing theory that the flight crashed in the southern Indian Ocean and ought to dispel some of the more far-fetched conspiracy theories about the disappearance.

Despite the anxiety to the flying public caused by the disappearance of MH370, those who fly now owe a significant debt to decades of rigorous investigations into previous crashes. Particularly since the mandating in the 1960s of the black box system, comprising a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder, aviation authorities have been able to better identify and sometimes eliminate – or at least mitigate – the factors that cause serious incidents.

MH370’s black box might still be found, 16 months after the plane diverted from its intended flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Black boxes have been recovered from deep-sea locations up to two years after a crash. In the case of an Air France flight that crashed into the Atlantic ocean while flying from Brazil to France in 2009, debris was located at a depth of nearly 4,000 metres.

But in this case, while finding the recorders might go some way to solving the mystery of MH370, it is unlikely that it will take aviation security much further forward. It seems probable that the plane was deliberately diverted then downed by one of the pilots in a similar fashion to the crash that killed 200 people in the Germanwings disaster of March this year. Cockpit security measures now being adopted after that tragedy should go much of the way to preventing future pilot suicide incidents – although probably nothing will ever prevent a truly determined pilot from killing himself and his innocent passengers.

In future, too, planes will be fitted with transponders to track their movements that can’t be switched off from the flight deck. This will help in tracing the location of a missing aircraft but again will do little to prevent any tragedy occurring in the first place.

We, of course, hope that after the discoveries on Reunion, the search for the black boxes will be more fruitful. But it is likely that all they will confirm is the “how” of this disaster and not the “why”.