11 mar 2014
Malaysia jet changed course at time of disappearance, officials say
(Senior Chief Petty Officer Chris D Boardman via The New York Times)
In a photo released by the US Navy, a Seahawk helicopter lands aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Pinckney to change flight crews before returning to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight in the Gulf of Thailand on March 9, 2014.
Sepang, Malaysia: The Malaysian authorities now believe that a jetliner missing since Saturday radically changed course around the time that it stopped communicating with ground controllers. But there were conflicting accounts of the course change or what may have happened afterward, adding to the air of confusion and disarray surrounding the investigation and search operation.
As criticism of their inability to find any trace of the jet has mounted, the Malaysian authorities have repeatedly insisted that they were doing their best to solve the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, with scarce data and almost no precedent.
But the government and the airline have also offered imprecise, incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information, with civilian officials contradicting military leaders.
On Tuesday, the fourth day after the plane disappeared while on an overnight flight to Beijing, the head of Malaysia’s air force, Gen. Rodzali Daud, was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper saying the military had received “signals” on Saturday that after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers, it changed course sharply, from heading northeast to heading west. It then supposedly flew hundreds of miles across the Malaysian Peninsula and out over the Strait of Malacca, before the tracking went blank.
According to this new account, the last sign of the plane was recorded at 2:40 a.m. Saturday, and the aircraft was then near Pulau Perak, an island more than 100 miles off the western shore of the Malaysian Peninsula.
That assertion stunned aviation experts as well as officials in China, who had been told again and again that the authorities lost contact with the plane more than an hour earlier, when it was on course over the Gulf of Thailand, east of the peninsula. But the new account seemed to fit with the decision on Monday, previously unexplained, to expand the search area to include waters west of the peninsula.
Most of the aircraft’s 227 passengers were Chinese, and the new account prompted an outpouring of anger on Chinese social media sites. “Malaysia, how could you hide something this big until now?” said one posting on Sina.com Weibo, a service similar to Twitter.
David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector, said the Malaysian government seemed evasive and confused, and he questioned why, if the remarks attributed to Daud were true, it took so long for the government to reveal evidence about a western flight path.
“The relatives of the people who’ve gone missing are being deprived of information about what’s happened to the airplane – that for me is the issue,” he said. “If somebody knows something and isn’t telling, that’s not nice under the circumstances.”
Adding to the confusion, Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, spokesman for the prime minister’s office, said in a telephone interview that he had checked with senior military officials, who told him there was no evidence that the plane had recrossed the Malaysian Peninsula, only that it may have attempted to turn back.
“As far as they know, except for the air turn-back, there is no new development,” Tengku Sariffuddin, adding that the reported remarks by the air force chief were “not true.”
Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, offered a third, conflicting account. In a statement, the airline said authorities were “looking at a possibility” that the plane was headed to Subang, an airport outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur, that handles mainly domestic flights.
Without specifying why, the Malaysian authorities vastly expanded the search area to the west on Monday, implying that they believed there was a strong chance the plane had traveled there. No similar expansion was made to the east or the south.
But if the flight traveled west over Malaysia, as the air force chief was quoted saying, it would have flown very close to a beacon in the city of Kota Bharu operated by Flightradar24, a global tracking system for commercial aircraft.
Mikael Robertsson, the co-founder of Flightradar24, said the transponder on the jet never sent a signal to that receiver, which means that if the plane did fly that way, its transponder had either been knocked out of service by damage or had been deliberately shut off.
“We see every aircraft that flies over there, even if it’s very, very low, so if it flew over there, the transponder was off,” he said.
A pilot can turn off the transponder, Robertsson said, and the fact that the last contact from the Malaysia Airlines flight’s transponder came at roughly the same time that the cockpit crew stopped communicating with ground controllers by radio suggests that is what happened, Robertsson said. “I guess to me it sounds like they were turned off deliberately.”
The plane disappeared from Flightradar24’s tracking system at 1:21 a.m. Saturday while flying at 35,000 feet over the Gulf of Thailand; Malaysia Airlines has said that the last radio communication with the pilots was at about 1:30 a.m., but has not given a precise time.