The Malay Mail Online
March 22, 2014
KUALA LUMPUR, March 22 — One of — if not the — safest planes in the world, plying a busy commercial air route between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, on a clear night devoid of inclement weather, and piloted by a captain with over 18,000 hours of flight experience is now missing for exactly two weeks.
What at first appeared an improbable aviation disaster is now an “unprecedented” mystery in which the answer to most important question — where is Malaysia Airlines flight MH370? — remains firmly locked away.
Over the course of the last 14 days, the world was given vital clues about what transpired on the Boeing 777-200ER with 239 people including the two pilots and 10 crew members onboard.
Investigators piecing together events using bits of information now know that at 1.07am on March 8, 26 minutes after it departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the plane’s the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), sent its last transmission. Another, scheduled 30 minutes later, was never made.
Around 120 nautical miles off the coast of Kelantan, the co-pilot Fariq Ab Hamid contacted Subang Air Traffic Control to make the plane’s last radio transmission. The last words he uttered were, “All right, good night”.
At 1.22am, a person experts say must possess deep technical knowledge of the Boeing plane, turned off its transponder, rendering it invisible to commercial radar.
The plane was then flown westward from its intended path to Beijing, turning around at Checkpoint Igari in the South China Sea.
From there, it flew on to Checkpoint Vampi, northeast of Indonesia’s Aceh province and a navigational point used for planes following route N571 to the Middle East.
Subsequent plots indicate the plane flew towards Checkpoint Gival, south of the Thai island of Phuket, and was last plotted heading northwest towards another checkpoint, Igrex, used for route P628 that would take it over the Andaman Islands and which carriers use to fly towards Europe.
Malaysia later confirmed — albeit one week after the plane vanished — that its military radar captured MH370 as it flew across the peninsula, over the densely populated areas including Penang, before it flew beyond radar range some 200 nautical miles in the Straits of Malacca.
Last Saturday, it also confirmed that MH370 flew on for six hours longer than search and rescue teams initially believed, putting it thousands of miles away from where tens of planes and ships had been scouring in the South China Sea.
British commercial satellite firm Inmarsat said that one of its satellites was pinged approximately once an hour by MH370 between the time it severed communications with ATC and the final “electronic handshake” at 8.11am on March 8.
From this, investigators used the plane’s available speed range to deduce that it could be in one of two corridors: a northern arc from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in central Asia, or a southern one from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
The two divergent corridors were a result of the inability of this particular Boeing 777-200ER to tell the geosynchronous Inmarsat satellite where it was when it sent its “electronic handshake”, but only how far away in relation.
Efforts to “refine” the information to eliminate either corridor hit early obstacles after three of Malaysia’s neighbours — Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar — said their radars never saw the plane.
Last Saturday, India ruled out the possibility that MH370 slipped past its radar. A day later, Pakistan did the same.
In fact, beyond the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAF’s) primary radar sites in Kota Baru and Butterworth, no country has admitted to seeing MH370 on their radar screens.
Thailand later reversed its position, admitting 10 days after the plane vanished that three of its air force radars may have spotted the aircraft.
“We did not pay any attention to it,” Thai air force spokesman Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn was quoted saying in an Associated Press report.
This neglect and foot-dragging in revealing information may have come out of a legitimate fear of exposing holes in their military defences, especially in a region as tighly-packed with multiple sovereign states but through whose airspace and waters see immense volumes of commercial traffic.
But Malaysia has also concluded that the plane is missing due to “deliberate action” and has subjected all 239 people onboard to an investigation under laws dealing with hijack, sabotage and other acts of terrorism.
The circumstances involved — key communications disabled at an opportune moment between two countries and a plane skilfully threaded through a series of checkpoints in a manner designed to skirt watching radars — point to skilled pilot or at least an experienced aviation technician.
Yesterday, Malaysia said foreign intelligence agencies have give the all-clear to the 227 passengers, even the two Iranians who had boarded the flight using the stolen passports of two Europeans, and a Ukrainian, due to the political crisis which broke out there shortly before Flight MH370’s disappearance.
Even so, the investigation has yet to wholly discount the possibility of a technical failure.
The US National Transportation Safety Board noted an unusual consignment of easily-flammable lithium-ion batteries — which are used for personal electronic devices such as smartphones — in the MH370 cargo list, which may spark a fire in the hold at high altitudes if poorly packed.
Despite the clues being gathered, however, criticism continues to be aimed at Malaysia for taking so long to come forward with information.
China-owned media, whose 153 countrymen made up the bulk of those onboard MH370, were scathing with their censure, accusing Malaysian of wasting precious time and resources searching areas where it is now known that the plane flew over only briefly.
The delay will also have terminally complicated search in the “southern corridor”, a colossal and remote swathe of seawater with treacherous and icy currents fed from Antarctica.
Investigators said they have found what they say has been the best lead in a week after satellite picked up two indistinct objects floating in the Indian Ocean some 2,500km off Western Australia.
And even if the objects indeed turn out to be debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, over a week of ocean currents mean there is no reliable way to establish if the plane went down near the site of discovery or were swept there from thousands of kilometres away.
Search teams are also racing against the clock to find the so-called “black boxes” — the flight data and cockpit voice recorders — in order to extract the information essential to explaining what transpired in the final moments of flight MH370.
While the two vital recorders have beacons that transmit their locations to those searching, these have only enough power to keep broadcasting for 30 days.
With 14 days gone, search teams have just 16 more days to scour hundreds of thousands of kilometres before the two go silent forever.
“This is undoubtedly going to take a while… It could take months or longer,” Mark Rosenker, a former vice chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board, was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
Rosenker pointed out that there was no known debris field in which to look for the crucial data recorders from the plane, without which he said crash investigators would be stuck “investigating a murder without a body”.
A safety consultant who worked on the case of the 2009 incident of Air France flight AF447 that crashed en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro also drew parallels between the search now and the nearly two years it took to hunt down the black boxes from the plane then.
The consultant pointed out that the search for AF447 took that long even when investigators knew the approximate area in which the plane went down.
“In this case, they have no idea where the flight ended,” Curt Lewis told the WSJ. “The task is tremendous.”
Acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has braced the country to as much as expect a protracted search with a pear-shaped ending.
“This is going to be a long haul. We have to trench down on this,” he told a daily news conference on MH370 yesterday.
Malaysia has vowed to keep looking for “as long as it takes” to find MH370, saying it owed this to the families.
It has now roped in over 26 countries to help search for the missing plane.
The search scope, now moved from just hundreds of nautical miles over the South China Sea to the two corridors, has now expanded to 7.68 million square miles (2.24 million nautical miles), or the size of Australia.
And with the prospect of hunt taking months and even years, it will need all the help it can get.