Forensic reconstruction from an interdisciplinary research team offers new insight into the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 on March 8, 2014. More than one year later, the fate of that Boeing 777 jet and all 239 people aboard is still being investigated.
According to the work of a leading applied mathematician and several colleagues, there is reason to believe that the plane plunged vertically into the southern Indian Ocean after entering a 90-degree nosedive.
The scenario that was described by math professor Dr. Goong Chen of Texas A&M University at Qatar (Tamuq) — a vertical water entry — best explains the lack of debris or spilled oil in the waters around the presumed crash site.
The team ran numerical simulations, using applied mathematics and computational fluid dynamics, on the RAAD supercomputer cluster at Texas A&M at Qatar. The results of this study were published in the April edition of “Notices of the American Mathematical Society” and further highlighted by Sputnik News.
Dr. Chen and an international team of researchers from Texas A&M University, Penn State, Virginia Tech, MIT and the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) tested five possible scenarios including one that resembled the so-called “miracle on the Hudson,” the maneuver performed by Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger to safely “land” US Airways flight 1549 in the middle of New York City’s Hudson River.
The lack of debris factors prominently into the team’s findings. Based on the fluid dynamics simulations, a vertical water entry is the least likely to compromise the structural integrity of the aircraft. At this angle, the “bending moment” is subdued. Compared to other angles of entry, the nosedive crash incurs a small bending moment which takes off the wings and tail, but leaves the fuselage intact.
Drawing on observations of the computed data combined with the understanding of aviation precedents, atmospheric and ocean surface conditions, the team concluded that after such a vertical entry, the fuselage, wings and other heavy debris would sink to the bottom of the ocean floor, leaving little evidence behind.
“The mystery of the final moments of MH370 is likely to remain until someday when its black box is found and decoded,” wrote the authors. “But our assessment, the nosedive water-entry or a water-entry with a steep pitch angle, is the most likely scenario.”
The team also addressed the vitally important role that the scientist has in understanding and preventing such tragedies.
“The crash of an airliner into ocean is a profoundly tragic event,” they wrote. “But on the mathematical and engineering side, there should be significant interest in its modeling and computation so that one can understand the physical mechanisms better in the hope of improving aircraft crashworthiness and survivability. The CFD approach is advantageous in saving long and expensive processes of laboratory setup and measurements. Now, with the availability of increased free and open-source computational tools and user-friendly software, it has become much easier for mathematicians to conduct interdisciplinary collaboration with engineers and physicists for the modeling and computation of complex, “real world” problems, just as this article has hoped to demonstrate. Many challenges remain. Regarding CFD for the study of aircraft ditching in water, see an excellent review and outlook paper in Liu et al. [LQG+14]. For an analysis-minded mathematician, it would be nice to formulate a list of problems dealing with the rigor of generality of approach, robustness, and stability issues, which are being considered.”