Asia-Pacific

Thursday 21 August 2014

Malaysian aircraft search area now stretching to 27,000 square nautical miles

Forty-two ships, 39 aircraft from 12 countries deployed in the search

Published 12/03/2014 | 10:47

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Military personnel look out of a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) C130 transport plane as they search for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane. Photo: Reuters/Thong Kah Hoong Dennis/Lianhe Zaobao/Singapore Press Holdings Ltd
Indonesian Air Force crewmen pray prior to a search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777. Authorities acknowledged today they didn't know which direction the plane carrying 239 passengers was heading when it disappeared, vastly complicating efforts to find it. Photo: AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara

Over four days into the search for MH370, authorities still do not know where this plane is.

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Politicians and authorities in Malaysia are now coming under very severe pressure to find the aircraft.

The Chinese ambassador was in the front row of the latest press conference.

The Malaysian Transport minister has revealed that the search area for MH370 now covers more than 27,000 square nautical miles - 12,000 plus in the Straits of Malacca and 14,000 in the South China Sea.

There are 42 ships and 39 aircraft from 12 countries deployed in the search. 

Authorities have said they do not know which direction the plane carrying 239 passengers was heading when it disappeared.

Amid intensifying confusion and occasionally contradictory statements, the country's civil aviation authorities and the military said the plane may have turned back from its last known position between Malaysia and Vietnam, possibly as far as the Strait of Malacca, a busy shipping lane west of Malaysia.

How it might have done this without being clearly detected remains a mystery, raising questions over whether its electrical systems, including transponders allowing it to be identified by radar, were either knocked out or turned off. If it did manage to fly on, it would challenge earlier theories that the plane may have suffered a catastrophic incident, initially thought reasonable because it did not send out any distress signals.

Vietnamese officials gave conflicting accounts of whether the search effort there was being scaled back as a result of the confusion.

This is likely to anger relatives of those on board the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, who are desperate for information about the fate of their loved ones.

Authorities have not ruled out any possible cause, including mechanical failure, pilot error, sabotage or terrorism.

Both the Boeing 777 and Malaysia Airlines have excellent safety records.

Until wreckage or debris is found and examined, it will be very hard to say what happened.

The search for the missing aircraft was begun from the spot it was last reported to be over the ocean between Malaysia and Vietnam.

But Malaysian authorities have said search operations were ongoing in the Strait of Malacca.

Scores of planes and aircraft have been scouring waters in both locations.

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The country's air force chief, General Rodzali Daud, released a statement denying remarks attributed to him in a local media report saying that military radar had managed to track the aircraft turning back from its original course, crossing the country and making it to the Malacca strait.

Gen Rodzali referred to a statement he said he made March 9 in which he said the air force has "not ruled out the possibility of an air turn back" and said search and rescue efforts had been expanded to the waters around Penang Island, in the northern section of the strait.

"There is a possibility of an air turn back. We are still investigating and looking at the radar readings," the country's civilian aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said Wednesday.

It is possible that the radar readings are not definitive or subject to interpretation, especially if a plane is malfunctioning.

The confusion has prompted speculation that different arms of the government have different opinions over where the plane is most likely to be, or even that authorities are holding back information. The crisis may have led to internal mix-ups and miscommunication.

The Strait of Malacca that separates Malaysia from Indonesia's Sumatra Island is 250 miles (400km) from where the plane was last known to have made contact with ground control officials over the Gulf of Thailand at a height of 35,000ft (almost 11,000m) early on Saturday

Indonesia air force Colonel Umar Fathur said the country had received official information from Malaysian authorities that the plane was above the South China Sea, about 12 miles (20km) from Kota Bharu, Malaysia, when it turned back toward the strait and then disappeared.

That would place its last confirmed position closer to Malaysia than has previously been publicly disclosed.

Col Fathur said Malaysian authorities have determined four blocks to be searched in the strait, which Indonesia was assisting in.

Vietnam's deputy transport minister Pham Quy Tieu was quoted by the Labourer Newspaper as telling reporters that operations had been scaled down following the air force chief's reported remarks, while Vietnam awaited confirmation. But Lieutenant General Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of the Vietnamese People's Army, said this was not the case, and that efforts were being intensified.

Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar, who has been ordered to look at possible criminal aspects in the disappearance of the plane, has earlier said that hijacking, sabotage and issues related to the pilots' psychological health were being considered.

Aviation experts said they were becoming more uncertain about what most likely happened to the airliner.

Some said a major power outage was an unlikely explanation for why the aircraft's transponder and communications system were apparently not functioning at the time it was reportedly detected by Malaysian military radar flying back toward Malaysia.

With a power catastrophe so large that the various back-up systems, independent power supplies and built-in redundancies could not cope, the aircraft would be barely able to fly, said Jason Middleton, professor of aviation at the University of New South Wales.

Yet Prof Middleton said if one or more passengers overpowered the pilots to take control of the plane, they would need training to switch off the transponder and other systems to ensure the jet was able to fly undetected.

"It's stretching belief a little bit that someone's going to be capable enough in the (777) to do all that," he said. "It's a very curious outcome, you just can't rule out the possibility that the captain or the first officer have gone crazy."

Press Association

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