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'Just the Beginning': Families Get Awful News, But Mystery Still Unsolved

Image: Search Continues For Possible Malaysian Airliner Debris Found In Indian Ocean

Flying Officer Marc Smith, co-pilot of an RAAF AP-3C Orion makes his final approach to RAAF Pearce airbase having just completed an 11 hour search mission for missing Malaysia Airways Flight MH370 on March 24, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Pool via Getty Images

The conclusion that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean, killing everyone on board, provides an awful finality for the families. But it brings investigators little closer to solving the mystery of the missing jet.

Getting those answers will still depend on what has so far been a halting, frustrating search for wreckage.

“There’s so many variables,” said Capt. John Cox, the former top safety official for the Air Line Pilots Association and an NBC News analyst. “We’re still waiting for that confirmation of debris.”

The Malaysian prime minister announced Monday that advanced satellite analysis had confirmed that Flight 370 went down “in the middle of the Indian Ocean,” west of Australia and nowhere near a place to land safely.

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The conclusion came from Inmarsat, the satellite company that picked up “pings” from the Boeing 777 more than seven hours after it took off on March 8, and from British investigators.

The satellite analysis allowed them to eliminate a northern search zone that stretched from Central to Southeast Asia. But it was not clear how much the revelation would help narrow the search zone, or how the countries looking for the plane might deploy their ships and planes in response.

Finding a debris field is critical because it could lead investigators to the so-called black boxes, which would be rich with clues about the fate of the plane.

But even if the number-crunchers can locate the last satellite “ping” from the plane, no one knows how high it was at that moment, how fast it was going or how much fuel it had left.

Large planes can glide almost 80 miles from a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, said Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., and an aircraft accident investigator. And any debris has had more than two weeks to drift in the churning waters of the Indian Ocean.

“What they’re doing is basically ruling out the possibility of survival,” Waldock said. “Everything else is still there.”

If the jet was flying itself when it crashed — and even that has not been confirmed by investigators — and if it hit the ocean at hundreds of miles an hour, it almost certainly would have struck the water nose-first and blown apart.

With the fuselage in pieces, seat cushions would be among the more likely objects to float, as well as items from the overhead bins and perhaps from the cargo hold, said Cox, who is now the CEO of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consulting company. Most of the body of the plane would shatter or sink, he said.

“Water is a non-compressible,” he said. “And as a result the airplane comes apart in a very, very brutal way when it hits.”

But he stressed that investigators still don’t know the precise point of impact, or how fast the plane was traveling — or what happened to it in the first place. And a Boeing 777 has never crashed into the water before.

“As far as the investigation is concerned, everything’s really still on the table,” said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board who presided over the investigations into the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.

“Whatever it is,” he said, “this is just the beginning.”

Cox said he was surprised and encouraged that the Malaysian prime minister cited data from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the British equivalent of the NTSB.

That told him, he said, that investigators have a high degree of confidence in the validity of the satellite analysis. He identified the AAIB as among the handful of most capable air-disaster agencies in the world.

“They’re not going to sign off on anything that’s questionable,” he said.

On Monday, an Australian plane spotted an orange, rectangular object and a gray or green circular object while it looked for Flight 370. Australia sent a ship to check it out, but the prime minister cautioned that the objects might be nothing more than flotsam.

An American P-8 Poseidon plane went out looking for “suspicious objects” in the southern Indian Ocean that had been spotted by satellite, but it was hampered by fog and found nothing.

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“As long as there is a glimmer of hope, our search efforts will carry on,” said Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry.

The Navy is also sending a device with highly sensitive listening capability that can be towed behind a boat and can pick up underwater “pings” like those emitted by an airplane’s black box. It arrives in Australia on Wednesday morning local time.

But naval officials emphasized that they were sending the device only as a prudent step for “if or when” a debris field is found that could substantially narrow the search area.

The Malaysian prime minister gave no detail on how much the satellite analysis would be able to help with that. He promised more information Tuesday.

“The only thing we are closer to today, if this information is correct, is putting the families at least in the situation where they know what has happened to their loved ones,” said Hall, the former NTSB chairman. “Even though it’s very painful, at least that uncertainty has been removed.”