ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to get an update now on the enduring mystery behind Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It disappeared on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing more than two and a half years ago. The search has so far failed to find the plane, and it may soon be called off. But this month has seen some important developments. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been following this story from the start and joins me now to talk about the latest. Hi, Geoff.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: This search has been going on for years. And as I understand it now, some experts believe that they may have been looking in the wrong place. Is that right?
BRUMFIEL: That's right. So this plane disappeared into the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean in March of 2014. Ships have been scouring an area the size of Pennsylvania. They're almost done. And there's this new report out now that suggests the plane likely crashed to the north of the current search area.
SIEGEL: It seems remarkable, given the amount of time and money that's been spent on this search, that they didn't think to look in that area to the north. Why not?
BRUMFIEL: Well, part of this new analysis is based on the fact that they haven't found the plane where they have been looking, so it sort of factors in the effort that's been expended. But there's also been some developments since the search area was set up years ago. In fact, debris has been washing up since 2015. It first showed up on a French-administered island called La Reunion.
Since then, more than 20 pieces of debris have washed up everywhere from South Africa to Mauritius to Tanzania. Scientists have taken this debris, they've looked at where it's landed, and they've been able to sort of simulate its likely path across thousands of miles of open ocean to the likely search zone. And they now believe that search zone is to the north of where they've been looking.
SIEGEL: Are they now going to begin a new search of that area or wrap up the whole search?
BRUMFIEL: Interestingly enough, the current plan is not to. So Malaysia, China and Australia have jointly been conducting this search. And in July, they met and they agreed that when the existing search area was completely covered they were going to stop unless they found specific information pointing to a location of the aircraft. Now, this new search zone is far smaller than the existing one, but it's still around 10,000 square miles, so it's still far larger than the parties would like. And so the current plan is to basically end the search early next year.
SIEGEL: How are the families of the people who were on that flight reacting to all this?
BRUMFIEL: Well, the families are understandably very upset. They've felt sort of marginalized in this investigation from the start. They've felt the Malaysians in particular haven't been very forthcoming. You know, when this debris first turned up, there was no real coordinated effort to go out and find more, and so the families themselves this month went out to Madagascar to conduct a search and to highlight the fact that no one was really looking for additional debris. One of the family spokespeople I contacted told me that he's hopeful that the search will continue. And he believes it will even though currently the searching governments say that they have no plans to continue it.
SIEGEL: So we don't know the answer to the big question - where is the plane? - but we do know something about what happened. What do we know?
BRUMFIEL: Well, here's what we know. We know this plane took off in early March one night. We know it made a deliberate turn early on in its flight, that somebody steered this plane off course. We don't know who it was. We know it executed another series of turns after that. And then it flew straight out into the Indian Ocean for hours, possibly on autopilot. That tends to be the assumption.
Some of the debris we've seen suggests that the flaps were up at the time the plane ended its flight. Flaps are used for landing usually. And that suggests that maybe the plane was not under anyone's control at the end of its flight, when it's believed it ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. We still don't know much about the fate of this aircraft. This really is the greatest aviation mystery of this century and one of the greatest of all time.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, who is still covering the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 more than two years later. Geoff, thanks.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you.
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