Today is not a good day to be a Malaysian as the world wakes up to critical and adverse media headlines on the Malaysian preliminary report on the missing MH370 Boeing 777-200 completing its eighth week of vanishing into the air with 239 passengers and crew on board without leaving any wreckage or clue as to what had happened on the fateful morning of March 8.
All over the world, the media splashed the shocking headlines of the admission from the first Malaysian official report that nobody noticed that Flight MH370 was missing for 17 minutes and no search was launched for another four hours.
Instead of answering the many questions that have been raised in the past eight weeks of the MH 370 disaster, both the preliminary report and the statement by the Acting Transport Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, accompanying it have only provoked more questions.
Firstly, the five-page preliminary report on the missing MH 370 had been described as “scant at best” in contrast to the preliminary report into Air France 447 which was released one month after the plane disappeared and which was 128 pages long, while a preliminary report into the Qantas engine explosion over Singapore in 2010 was more than 40 pages with diagrams and charts.
The Malaysian government preliminary report makes one safety recommendation, for real-time air tracking to be installed on all commercial aircraft, viz:
“There have now been two occasions during the last five years when large commercial air transport aircraft have gone missing and their last position was not accurately known. This uncertainty resulted in significant difficulty in locating the aircraft in a timely manner.”
The same recommendation was made after the Air France jet crashed into the Atlantic in 2009, though nothing was done to satisfy the proposal.
More pertinent, however, is why the preliminary report which was dated three weeks ago on April 9 was not made public earlier, and why the relatives of the passengers and crew on board the missing plane had not been briefed on its contents before its public release.
For the first time in 56 days, Malaysians are told that the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had on the very same morning of the missing MH370, ordered the search and rescue operations to be extended to the Straits of Malacca, alongside that being carried out in the South China Sea.
Was this true that right from the very beginning of the search-and-rescue operation for the MH 370 on the morning of May 8, the search area had been extended from South China Sea to the Straits of Malacca?
If so, why didn’t Hishammuddin announce it earlier, instead of waiting for 55 days until yesterday in a statement accompanying the publication of the government’s preliminary report on the missing MH370?
It is to be noted that this new and hitherto unknown information to the public that the SAR operation area had right from the beginning on the same morning of the missing Boeing 77 been extended from the South China Sea to the Straits of Malacca was not disclosed in the preliminary report dated April 9 but in Hishammuddin’s statement dated May 1, 2014!
Furthermore, Najib himself did not seem to know that he had ordered the search area to be extended from the South China Sea to the Straits of Malacca the very same morning of the missing aircraft, for he made no mention of such extension in his press conference on May 8 held just after 7 pm where he announced the expansion of the search area after the SAR mission team found no wreckage in the plane’s last location before it disappeared from radar at 1.21 earlier in the morning.
Najib had said then that the first phase of the search efforts focused on the area where the plane’s signal was last picked up, had proved unsuccessful in locating it, and the search area was being “expanded as wide as possible”.
Civil Aviation Department director-general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, who was present at Najib’s press conference, spelt out the meaning of this expansion of the search area by saying that “we are searching in Malaysian and Vietnamese waters”.
The next day, on Sunday, 9th March, Azharuddin told the press that the search operation had been expanded further from the initial 20 nautical miles in the South China Sea to 50 nautical miles – no mention whatsoever of its expansion to the Straits of Malacca.
Unless Hishammuddin can give satisfactory explanation for these new additional discrepancies in the latest official accounts of what happened in the first crucial days of the SAR for the missing MH 370, he has only himself to blame if the government preliminary report and his statement accompanying it suffer a serious credibility gap.
This is why a report by an Opposition-headed Parliamentary Select Committee on the MH 370 disaster would have greater credibility than a unilaterial statement by Hishammuddin, especially when new facts suddenly surface as if to embellish the government’s version of what happened in the crucial first few days of the MH 370 disaster.
There are many fatal omissions in the government preliminary report – for instance, the failure to explain the many flip-flops, contradictions and confusions in the information given out by the various authorities, for instance, the initial information that MH 370 had lost contact at 2.40 am when it was subsequently established that the aircraft disappeared from the Malaysian air traffic controllers’ radar at 1.21 am Malaysian time.
But the most fatal error which still cries out for explanation is why it took another four hours before the search-and-rescue (SAR) operation was launched, when time is of the essence in such cases as the sooner a SAR mission is initiated, the greater the possibility of finding the wreckage and casualties.
Under civil aviation emergency standard operating procedures, an Uncertainty Phase (INCERFA) should be invoked within 30 minutes when there is concern about the safety of an aircraft or its occupants.
An Alert Phase (ALERFA) should be invoked when there is apprehension about the safety of an aircraft and its occupants, or when communication from an aircraft has not been received within 60 minutes.
A Distress Phase (DETRESFA) should be invoked when there is reasonable certainty that the aircraft or its occupantsw are threatened by grave and imminent danger – or when following an Alert Phase, further attempts to establish communications with the aircraft are unsuccessful
All these emergency standard operating procedures were violated in the MH 370 case, for ALERFA should have been declared at 1.51 am, ALERTA at 2.21 am and DETRESFA before 3 am to lauch a full-scale SAR operation instead of delaying until 5.30 am that day!
Another grave omission is the role of the Royal Malaysian Air Force and the military radar in the MH 370 disaster.