News Asia-Pacific

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Malaysia reveals somebody on lost plane switched off communications

Relatives face reality thay they may never know why loved ones died

Tania Branigan in BEIJING

Published 16/03/2014 | 02:30

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Japanese Coast Guard personnel conduct a briefing before embarking on the search

AFTER a week of false leads, U-turns, wild speculation and outright contradictions, it was hard to believe there could be any more surprises in the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.

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But when Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak, finally appeared before the media yesterday afternoon – for the first time since flight MH370 went missing – his words were startling.

Not only did investigators believe the plane had been deliberately diverted after its communication systems were switched off, but they believed it had been sending signals to satellites from air or ground as late as 8.11am on Saturday morning, more than six-and-a-half hours after it had lost contact with air control staff and 45 minutes after the Boeing 777 had been declared missing by the airline.

That final ping came from one of two lengthy air corridors stretching as far as Kazakhstan to the north or the southern Indian Ocean – around western Australia – in the other. By that point, if still in the air, the plane would probably have been almost out of fuel. The initial search area in the South China Sea was no longer relevant, but an even vaster swath of land and sea was now in play.

Within the central mystery, of where flight MH370 ended – and why – lie two more puzzles. How could a huge passenger jet apparently disappear for six hours before anyone raised the alarm? And how could it cross the airspace of multiple countries in a region sensitive about security without anyone noticing?

Each day of the investigation has brought fresh suspicions, theories and facts, often quickly debunked.

"We are going through a roller coaster and feel helpless and powerless," one woman waiting for news of a relative told Associated Press.

Were it not for the tragedy of the 239 passengers and crew missing aboard the plane, it would seem like the stuff of a Hollywood thriller.

"A normal investigation becomes narrower with time, as new information focuses the search," the minister of transport Hishammuddin Hussein had said on Friday.

"But this is not a normal investigation."

It was 12.41am on Saturday, March 8, when flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing. The 227 passengers were in experienced hands; Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah had served the airline for 23 years; his first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid for seven. Around 40 minutes later came the last verbal contact with the plane, as Malaysian air traffic control told the flight deck that their next contact would be with Vietnamese authorities.

"All right, good night," was the reply. It is not clear which of the pilots was speaking.

Vietnamese authorities say the flight never entered their airspace; according to another pilot, they asked him to relay a message to MH370.

Whether they took any further action is unknown. What is certain is that it was not until 7.24am, almost an hour after the plane's scheduled arrival time of 6.30am, that the airline announced it was missing.

The early hours of the search were chaotic. A persistent but false rumour suggested there had been an emergency landing in southern China. The circumstances were so unusual – good weather; the lack of a distress call; the experience of the pilots; and the strong safety records of both the Boeing 777 and Malaysia Airlines – that the possibility of a deliberate disappearance surfaced quickly. Some cited the possibility of a pilot suicide, with a deliberate nosedive into the South China Sea. But the way that data from the plane stopped suddenly suggested to many a possible explosion or perhaps a catastrophic failure.

Experts predicted the plane or its wreckage would be found within a day or so. Then, it emerged that two listed passengers were not on board. Their passports had been stolen a year or more before and were being used by others. Speculation of a hijacking soared, only to be curtailed on Tuesday when Interpol said it believed the young Iranians using those passports were not terrorists but were seeking asylum in Europe.

That same day, the inspector general of Malaysian police announced that his officers were looking at four possible causes of the disappearance: hijacking, sabotage, or the crew and passengers' personal or psychological problems.

But officials stressed they were examining all possible explanations and Malaysia Airlines said the plane might have turned back towards Kuala Lumpur, suggesting that technical problems might have caused an attempted return.

By now, however, people were treating new announcements with wariness at best, given the confusion and outright contradictions. On Tuesday, the police chief said that five people had checked in but not boarded; the following day, the transport minister insisted no one had done so.

The crisis has revealed the inefficiencies within the Malaysian system. It has also reflected enduring mistrust between many of the 14 countries involved in the search.

Suspicion remains that Malaysians were aware that the plane had headed west long before they announced it. In early statements Malaysia Airlines repeatedly said last contact with the plane was at 2.40am, long after the transponder was turned off but coinciding with a possible military radar sighting announced much later.

It has also become evident that while Malaysia remains in charge of the investigation, American expertise and capability in areas such as satellite technology is proving critical to the investigation's development. Staff from the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB, which investigates all domestic US air crashes, have been joined by commercial experts from Boeing and British flight investigators.

US leaks may also have proved critical to pushing the Malaysians towards greater transparency: the Wall Street Journal was the first to raise the possibility that the plane had flown for several hours after its last conflict, citing unnamed US sources.

But since the diversion is believed to be deliberate, unravelling the mystery of flight MH370 is now likely to rely as much on deciphering human clues as technical data: who was responsible and what did they want?

Whether the plane was diverted by one of the crew or a passenger is unknown. If, as seems likely, it was the captain or first officer flying, it is also possible they were acting under duress. Experts say that disabling the communications systems would have required specialist knowledge not just of aircraft per se but of the Boeing 777 specifically.

Another key question is whether the systems were shut off before or after air traffic control last spoke to the pilots. The calm "good night" from the cockpit clearly raises questions if the systems had already been disabled.

The pilot who said he tried to reach the flight at the behest of Vietnamese air traffic control shortly after 1.30am – when the transponders were already off – said he could hear only mumbling amid heavy interference, but believed he was probably speaking to the first officer.

The route the plane took also required significant navigational experience. And the timing of the diversion is also striking: just as the responsibility of Malaysia's air traffic control officials gave way to Vietnam's. The perfect opportunity for the plane to go missing with minimal attention.

It is also known that the first officer had invited young women to watch him fly on at least one occasion. The plane had also just reached cruising altitude, at which a pilot might leave the cockpit for a break.

China has stepped up pressure. "We ask that the Malaysian side provide more comprehensive and accurate information," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

Officials in the US have suggested that the plane is more likely to have taken a southerly course, otherwise military radars in a highly sensitive region would have picked it up – though Malaysia has acknowledged its own military made no attempt to identify MH370 when it was picked up by radar on the western coast.

If MH370 did indeed turn south, there are few obvious places it could have landed in the Indian Ocean. More likely, officials suggest, it might have crashed into the sea.

For relatives, the report of a deliberate diversion has raised fading hopes that those on board might still be alive. But a week after MH370 went missing, they face the cruel prospect that its ultimate fate may never be known.

© Observer

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