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The Malaysia Airlines jet: What we know and what we don’t

🕐 9 min read

Malaysia widens search for missing plane CHRIS BRUMMITT, Associated Press JIM GOMEZ, Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian authorities expanded their search for the missing jetliner into the Andaman Sea and beyond on Thursday after saying it could have flown for several hours after its last contact with the ground.

That scenario would make finding the jetliner a vastly more difficult task, and raises the possibility that searchers are currently looking in the wrong place for the Boeing 777 and its 229 passengers and crew.

In the latest in a series of false leads, planes were sent Thursday to search an area where Chinese satellite images published on a Chinese government website reportedly showed three suspected floating objects off the southern tip of Vietnam.

They saw only ocean.

“There is nothing. We went there, there is nothing,” said acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Compounding the frustration, he later said the Chinese Embassy had notified the government that the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

The plane was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday when it lost contact with ground controllers and civilian radar.

An international search effort is sweeping the South China Sea and also the Strait of Malacca because of unconfirmed military radar sightings that might indicate the plane changed course and headed west after its last contact.

The Wall Street Journal newspaper quoted U.S. investigators on Thursday as saying they suspected the plane remained in the air for about four hours after its last confirmed contact, citing data from the plane’s engines that are automatically transmitted to the ground as part of a routine maintenance program.

Hishammuddin said the government had contacted Boeing and Rolls Royce, the engine manufacturer, and both said the last engine data was received at 1:07 a.m., around 23 minutes before the plane lost contact.

But asked if it were possible that the plane kept flying for several hours, Hishammuddin said: “Of course, we can’t rule anything out. This is why we have extended the search.”

He said the search had been widened into the Andaman Sea and Malaysia was asking for radar data from neighboring countries. India plans to deploy air and sea assets in the southern section of the sea, a senior official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Investigators have not ruled out any possible cause for the disappearance of the plane.

Experts say a massive failure knocking out its electrical systems, while unlikely, could explain why its transponders, which identify it to civilian radar systems and other planes nearby, were not working. Another possibility is that the pilot, or a passenger, likely one with some technical knowledge, switched off the transponders in the hope of flying undetected.

The jet had enough fuel to reach deep into the Indian Ocean.

Dozens of ships and aircraft from 12 nations have been searching the Gulf of Thailand and the strait, but no confirmed trace has been found. The search area has grown to 35,800 square miles (92,600 square kilometers), or about the size of Portugal.

Experts say that if the plane crashed into the ocean then some debris should be floating on the surface even if most of the jet is submerged. Past experience shows that finding the wreckage can take weeks or even longer, especially if the location of the plane is in doubt.

Malaysia’s air force chief said Wednesday that an unidentified object appeared on military radar records about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of Penang, Malaysia, and experts are analyzing the data in an attempt to determine whether the blip is the missing plane.

From Wednesday:

Chico Harlan and Simon Denyer (c) 2014, The Washington Post. KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — As the search pressed on for a vanished Malaysian airliner, military officials said radar data showed that it inexplicably turned and headed toward the Malacca Strait, hundreds of miles off its scheduled flight path, news agencies and Malaysian media reported.

Malaysia’s air force chief, Gen. Rodzali Daud, was quoted by the Malaysian newspaper Berita Harian as saying that the Boeing 777 jet was detected by military radar at 2:40 a.m. Saturday near Pulau Perak at the northern end of the strait, which separates the western side of the Malaysian peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

“After that, the signal from the plane was lost,” he told the newspaper.

Military officials, speaking to both the Associated Press and Reuters, confirmed the air force chief’s remarks. On Wednesday morning, however, he took them back, denying he had ever made such a statement.

The confusion about Malaysian military thinking came after four days of searching for the vanished jet and indicated a degree of chaos in the operation, which is being coordinated by Malaysia’s civil aviation department. Separately, Malaysia Airlines said Tuesday that the plane could have been trying to turn back to Subang, an airport on the northern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Though search teams from 10 nations have combed both sides of the Malaysian peninsula for evidence of wreckage, authorities until now had indicated that the plane was likely in the Gulf of Thailand, where it disappeared from civilian radar shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing.

“If I was out there with a team, on a boat, working day and night, and then to have someone tell you, oh guess what, we don’t think it’s here after all. It might be 500 miles away. Wow,” said David Gallo, director of special projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who co-led the successful search for Air France Flight 447, which vanished in 2009 over the Atlantic.

The reports that MH370 veered so far off course added a bizarre and confusing new element to a case that has baffled investigators. Some aviation experts said the search might need to be further expanded. Given the fuel it had, the plane could have made it as far as India.

In the latest signal of impatience from Beijing, Chinese military sent two additional aircraft to help with search Tuesday, and it deployed another three vessels, which are expected to arrive in the area by Wednesday morning, according to state-controlled Xinhua News Agency. Japan also said it would dispatch a disaster relief team.

Four days after the plane carrying 227 passengers vanished, investigators admitted they still were mystified by what happened on board. Malaysian authorities said they continued to look for signs of sabotage or hijacking but were also considering the possibility of psychological or personal problems among the passengers or crew.

They played down any connection between the plane’s fate and two Iranian passengers who had boarded the aircraft with fake Austrian and Italian passports.

“The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it is not a terrorist incident,” Ronald Noble, secretary general of the international police agency Interpol, told reporters.

But in Washington, CIA Director John Brennan said terrorism could not yet be ruled out, while stressing that authorities have reached no conclusions about what caused the plane’s disappearance.

“It’s still a mystery at this point,” Brennan said after delivering a speech in Washington.

The Reuters news agency, citing an unidentified Malaysian military source, said military radar picked up the plane as it crossed the Malaysian peninsula in what were apparently its final minutes of flight. Malaysian media reported that some residents spotted a plane flying low, near the city of Kota Bharu.

If the reports were correct, it was unclear why many authorities didn’t appear aware of the information earlier in the investigation. Authorities have consistently said that Flight MH370’s transponder signal — which communicates with civil aviation radar — abruptly stopped at the time the plane was supposed to be entering Vietnamese air space. But military radar could have continued to track the aircraft.

If the plane dropped from a low altitude into the Malacca Strait, it might explain the lack of a major debris field. Malaysia Airlines said in a statement early Tuesday that the western coast of Malaysia was “now the focus” of the search. But a spokeswoman for the airline later said the wording was a mistake and that there was no emphasis on any location.

Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said searches were continuing “on both sides” of the peninsula.

The discovery of two passengers with fake documents had raised alarm that a terrorist attack might have brought down the plane. But authorities said Tuesday that the two Iranians carrying phony passports — Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29 — did not appear to be linked to any violent group. Both arrived in Malaysia the same day, Feb. 28, officials said.

At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Khalid Abu Bakar, inspector general of Malaysia’s police, said that the 19-year-old was trying to migrate to Germany: His mother had been waiting for him in Frankfurt, then called Malaysian authorities when he did not show up. Interpol identified the other Iranian at a separate news conference, though his reasons for traveling were not immediately clear. While Malaysia might seem an odd stop for Middle Eastern men heading for Europe, it is relatively easy for Iranians to enter the country, and air tickets to reach the Southeast Asian country are fairly cheap.

Khalid said that Malaysia has been examining images of baggage, studying closed-circuit monitors for suspicious behavior at the airport terminal and trying to obtain photos and profiles of the passengers.

Search teams, meanwhile, battled wind and whitecaps while looking for any sign of debris from the vanished Malaysia Airlines flight, especially wreckage containing the plane’s crucial cockpit recorders. The instruments usually emit tracking signals for about 30 days.

Whitecaps made it difficult Tuesday for search teams to spot wreckage — at least for the many crews working without radar technology. The United States is using both P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and helicopters that fly just 500 feet above the water and depend on crews to spot potential debris.

With the surveillance aircraft, “the software that goes with the radar is smart enough to cancel out those waves,” Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, said in a phone interview from the Gulf of Thailand. “However, if you’re just using your eyeballs, it is a significant challenge, because the water is not flat any more.”

– – –

Denyer reported from Beijing. Washington Post staff writers Jason Rezaian in Tehran; William Branigin, Ashley Halsey and Greg Miller in Washington; William Wan in Beijing; and Post correspondents Liu Liu, Gu Jinglu and Xu Jing in Beijing contributed to this report.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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