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Texas A&M at Qatar MH370 research named one of the top math stories of 2015

Published Jan 06, 2016

Texas A&M mathematician Dr. Goong “Gordon” Chen’s research theorizing what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370 (MH370) has been named one of the top math stories of 2015 by the American Mathematical Society (AMS).

Chen and an interdisciplinary research team theorized that the ill-fated plane plunged vertically into the southern Indian Ocean in March 2014. The researchers’ computer simulations lead to the forensic assertion that a 90-degree nosedive explains the lack of debris or spilled oil in the water near where the plane is presumed to have crashed. The research was the cover story in the April 2015 issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

The research made headlines all over the world, including CNN, the Huffington Post and International Business Times.

Chen is an applied mathematician who teaches and researches at Texas A&M at Qatar and Texas A&M University’s main campus in College Station, Texas, USA. He led the interdisciplinary team of collaborators from Texas A&M, Penn State, Virginia Tech, MIT and the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) in simulating and modeling what might have happened to the plane.

The researchers used applied mathematics and computational fluid dynamics to conduct numerical simulations on the RAAD Supercomputer at Texas A&M at Qatar of a Boeing 777 plunging into the ocean, a so-called “water entry” problem in applied mathematics and aerospace engineering. The team simulated five different scenarios and concluded that based on all available evidence — especially the lack of floating debris or oil spills near the area of the presumed crash — the mostly likely theory is that the plane entered the water at a vertical or steep angle.

The fluid dynamic simulations indicated that for a vertical water entry of the plane, there would be no large bending moment, which is what happens when an external force, or moment, is applied to a structural element (such as a plane), which then causes the fuselage to buckle and break up. As the vertical water-entry is the smoothest with only small bending moment in contrast with other angles of entry, the aircraft is less likely to experience “global failure,” or break up on entry near the ocean surface, which would explain the lack of debris or oil near the presumed crash site.

Based also on the suggestions of other aviation experts, Chen said in such a situation the wings would have broken off almost immediately and, along with other heavy debris, would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean, leaving little or no trace to be spotted.