Series of errors by Malaysia mounts, complicating the task of finding flight 370, pilot spoke to controllers after data system shut off

SEPANG, Malaysia — The radar blip that was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did a wide U-turn over the Gulf of Thailand and then began moving inexorably past at least three military radar arrays as it traversed northern Malaysia, even flying high over one of the country’s biggest cities before heading out over the Strait of Malacca.

Yet inside a Malaysian Air Force control room on the country’s west coast, where American-made F-18s and F-5 fighters stood at a high level of readiness for emergencies exactly like the one unfolding in the early morning of March 8, a four-person air defense radar crew did nothing about the unauthorized flight. “The watch team never noticed the blip,” said a person with detailed knowledge of the investigation into Flight 370. “It was as though the airspace was his.”

It was not the first and certainly not the last in a long series of errors by the Malaysian government that has made the geographically vast and technologically complex task of finding the $50 million Malaysia Airlines jet far more difficult.

A week after the plane disappeared, the trail is even colder as the search now sprawls from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to the empty expanses of the southern Indian Ocean. Nobody knows yet whether the delays cost the lives of any of the 239 people who boarded the flight to Beijing at Kuala Lumpur’s ultramodern airport here. But the mistakes have accumulated at a remarkable pace.

“The fact that it flew straight over Malaysia, without the Malaysian military identifying it, is just plain weird — not just weird, but also very damning and tragic,” said David Learmount, the operations and safety editor for Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector.

Click on post title to read more…

Senior Malaysian military officers became aware within hours of the radar data once word spread that a civilian airliner had vanished. The Malaysian government nonetheless organized and oversaw an expensive and complex international search effort in the Gulf of Thailand that lasted for a full week. Only on Saturday morning did Prime Minister Najib Razak finally shut it down after admitting what had already been widely reported in the news media: Satellite data showed that the engines on the missing plane had continued to run for nearly six more hours after it left Malaysian airspace.

Finding the plane and figuring out what happened to it is now a far more daunting task than if the plane had been intercepted. If the aircraft ended up in the southern Indian Ocean, as some aviation experts now suggest, then floating debris could have subsequently drifted hundreds of miles, making it extremely hard to figure out where the cockpit voice and data recorders sank.

And because the recorders keep only the last two hours of cockpit conversation, even the aircraft’s recorders may hold few secrets.

With so much uncertainty about the flight, it is not yet possible to know whether any actions by the Malaysian government or military could have altered its fate. Responding to a storm of criticism, particularly from China, whose citizens made up two-thirds of the passengers, Mr. Najib took pains in a statement early Saturday afternoon to say that Malaysia had not concealed information, including military data.

“We have shared information in real time with authorities who have the necessary experience to interpret the data,” he said, reading aloud a statement in English at a news conference. “We have been working nonstop to assist the investigation, and we have put our national security second to the search for the missing plane.”

Malaysia Airlines issued a similarly defensive statement late Saturday afternoon. “Given the nature of the situation and its extreme sensitivity, it was critical that the raw satellite signals were verified and analyzed by the relevant authorities so that their significance could be properly understood,” the airline said. “This naturally took some time, during which we were unable to publicly confirm their existence.”

Aviation experts said that a trained pilot would be the most obvious person to have carried out a complicated scheme involving the plane. Yet for a week after the plane’s disappearance, Malaysian law enforcement authorities said that their investigation did not include searching the home of the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

On Saturday afternoon, the police were seen entering the gated community where Mr. Zaharie was said to have lived, and Malaysian news media reported that they had searched his home. The police declined to comment, and it is not known whether the authorities made any effort to secure Mr. Zaharie’s home and prevent any destruction of evidence over the past week.

Mr. Najib said on Saturday that “the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” but Mr. Zaharie has not been accused of any wrongdoing. No information has been released yet on whether the homes of the co-pilot or flight attendants might be searched.

Even before the plane took off, Malaysian immigration officials had already allowed onto the plane at least two people using passports that had been logged into a global database as stolen, although there is no evidence that either person carrying a stolen passport was involved in diverting the plane.

A British Royal Air Force base in the colonial era, the Malaysian air force base at Butterworth sits on the mainland across from the island of Penang at the northern reaches of the Strait of Malacca. There, in the early morning hours of March 8, the four-person crew watching for intrusions into the country’s airspace either did not notice or failed to report a blip on their defensive radar and air traffic radar that was moving steadily across the country from east to west, heading right toward them, said the person with knowledge of the matter.

Neither that team nor the crews at two other radar installations at Kota Bharu, closer to where the airliner last had contact with the ground, designated the blip as an unknown intruder warranting attention, the person said. The aircraft proceeded to fly across the country and out to sea without anyone on watch telling a superior and alerting the national defense command near Kuala Lumpur, even though the radar contact’s flight path did not correspond to any filed flight plan.

As a result, combat aircraft never scrambled to investigate. The plane, identified at the time by Mr. Najib as Flight 370, passed directly over Penang, a largely urban state with more than 1.6 million people, then turned and headed out over the Strait of Malacca.

The existence of the radar contact was discovered only when military officials began reviewing tapes later in the morning on March 8, after the passenger jet failed to arrive in Beijing. It was already becoming clear that morning, only hours after the unauthorized flyover, that something had gone very wrong. Tapes from both the Butterworth and Kota Bharu bases showed the radar contact arriving from the area of the last known position of Flight 370, the person familiar with the investigation said.

Gen. Rodzali Daud, the commander of Malaysia’s Air Force, publicly acknowledged the existence of the radar signals for the first time on Wednesday, well into the fifth day after the plane’s disappearance. He emphasized that further analysis was necessary because the radar plots of the aircraft’s location were stripped of the identifying information given by the plane’s onboard transponders, which someone aboard the aircraft appeared to have turned off.

The failure to identify Flight 370’s errant course meant that a chance to send military aircraft to identify and redirect the jet, a Boeing 777, was lost. And for five days the crews on an armada of search vessels, including two American warships, focused the bulk of their attention in the waters off Malaysia’s east coast, far from the plane’s actual path.

General Rodzali went to the Butterworth air force base the day that the plane disappeared and was told of the radar blips, the person familiar with the investigation said. The Malaysian government nonetheless assigned most of its search and rescue resources, as well as ships and aircraft offered by other nations, to a search of the Gulf of Thailand where the aircraft’s satellite transponder was turned off, while allocating minimal attention to the Strait of Malacca on the other, western side of Peninsular Malaysia.

Also from NYT: Pilot Spoke to Air Controllers After Shutoff of Data System

At a news conference on Sunday, the Malaysian authorities listed possible reasons behind the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, including “sabotage.”

SEPANG, Malaysia — A signaling system was disabled on the missing Malaysia Airlines jet before a pilot spoke to air traffic control without mentioning trouble, a senior Malaysian official said on Sunday, reinforcing theories that one of the pilots may have been involved in diverting the plane and adding urgency to the investigation of their pasts and possible motivations.

With the increasing likelihood that Flight 370 was purposefully diverted and flown possibly thousands of miles from its planned route, Malaysian officials faced more questions about how the investigation, marked by days of contradictory government statements, might have ballooned into a global goose chase for information.

Prime Minister Najib Razak acknowledged on Saturday that military radar and satellite data raised the possibility that the plane could have ended up somewhere in Indonesia, the southern Indian Ocean, or along a vast arc of territory from northern Laos across western China to central Asia. Malaysian officials said they were scrambling to coordinate a 25-nation effort to find the plane.

A Malaysian soldier patrolled an area of the airport in Kuala Lumpur where passengers have written messages for the people aboard the missing plane and their loved ones.

And on Sunday, Malaysia’s defense minister added a critical detail about investigators’ understanding of what transpired in the cockpit in the 40 minutes of flight time before ground controllers lost contact with the jet. The determination that the last verbal message to the control tower — “All right, good night,” someone said — came after a key signaling system had stopped transmitting, perhaps having been shut off, appeared likely to refocus scrutiny on the plane’s veteran pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and his young first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid.

Commercial passenger planes use radio or satellite signals to send data through ACARS, the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. The system can monitor engines and other equipment for problems that may need attention when a plane lands.

Although officials had already said that ACARS was disabled on the missing plane, it had previously been unclear whether the system stopped functioning before or after the captain radioed his last, brief words to Kuala Lumpur, in which he did not indicate that anything was wrong with the signaling system or the plane as a whole.

During a news conference on Sunday, the defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, who is also acting minister of transportation, gave a terse answer: “Yes, it was disabled before,” he said.

The fate of the plane and the people it carried has become a formidable riddle, bringing together questions about aviation technology, investigation of the private lives of passengers and crew, and a search across a vast arc of the Indian Ocean and often rugged, remote terrain in Asia, with no clear idea of where to begin.

“It’s something of the scope I’ve never seen before,” Cmdr. William Marks, the spokesman for the United States Navy Seventh Fleet, which sent two guided-missile destroyers to join the search, said in a telephone interview. Of the size of the Indian Ocean, he said: “Essentially, it’s like looking for a person somewhere between New York and California. It’s that big.”

Malaysian officials on Sunday briefed representatives from 22 countries in the region and beyond that could help search along the two corridors where satellite data indicate the plane may have wound up, having flown up to six hours after its disappearance beyond the range of military radar in western Malaysia. Mr. Hishammuddin said Malaysia would also ask the United States, China, France and other countries to provide satellite data.

But establishing what happened to the plane also depends on reconstructing events in the cockpit in the early-morning moments on March 8 when the jet was passing over the Gulf of Thailand between northern Malaysia and southern Vietnam. At that time, its communications links were severed and it changed direction, flying across the Malaysian peninsula and out over the Strait of Malacca.

Given the complexity of that feat, experts and American government officials say that experienced aviators, possibly one or both of the pilots, were probably involved, either willingly or under coercion.

The plane’s transponder, which sends tracking signals to air traffic controllers, was disabled at 1:21 a.m., about a dozen minutes after ACARS was disabled, making it difficult to monitor the plane’s movements through the usual means.

Malaysia Airlines has previously said that the last voice communication with the plane came around 1:30 a.m. Mr. Hishammuddin was not asked and did not say whether that communication came after the disabling of the transponder as well as of ACARS.

The plane’s disappearance has prompted speculation, so far unproven, about involvement by extremists.

The Malaysian authorities trying to locate Flight 370 have not singled out the pilots or crew as the only potential suspects. Officials said on Sunday that they would scrutinize the backgrounds of all 239 passengers and crew onboard, as well as ground crew and engineers who worked on the Boeing 777 jet, which took off at 12:41 a.m. local time on March 8.

Journalists wait outside the house of Fariq Abdul Hamid, co-pilot of the Malaysian airlines missing flight MH370, in Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia

“The Malaysian authorities are refocusing their investigation on all crew and passengers,” Mr. Hishammuddin said. “I understand the hunger for new details, but we do not want to jump to conclusions.”

According to the airline, he said, “the pilot and co-pilot did not ask to fly together on MH370.” If true, that point might undermine speculation that the two men acted in unison in the plane’s disappearance.

Mr. Hishammuddin confirmed that the Malaysian police had searched the Kuala Lumpur homes of the captain and co-pilot on Saturday. The police took to their offices a flight simulator the pilot, Mr. Zaharie, had kept at his home, and reassembled it so that experts could examine its workings, Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police, told reporters.

Rohan Gunaratna, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who studies security and terrorism in Asia, said that while the weight of suspicion would inevitably fall on the pilots and other crew members, investigators were following established procedure by examining everyone on the missing plane.

Soon after the plane disappeared, F.B.I. agents and other American investigators “scrubbed” the names of the pilots and passengers, including two Iranian men who traveled on stolen passports, to determine whether they had any connections to terrorists. They have found no such connections, officials said on Sunday, while cautioning that the home countries of some of the passengers had not yet supplied full background checks on their citizens who were aboard the plane.

“You can’t rule anything out, so everyone on the plane must be treated as a potential suspect,” Professor Gunaratna said in a telephone interview. He said he had heard no credible information of any militant group’s claiming responsibility for seizing the plane.

“That does not mean the possibility does not exist, but at this stage of the investigation it’s important to be open to all the possibilities,” he said.

As investigators dug into the backgrounds of the people aboard Flight 370, the families of the pilot and first officer kept a low profile on Sunday and issued no statements.

In the upscale western suburbs of Kuala Lumpur where both men live, a near-permanent daytime encampment of local and foreign journalists had taken root outside their homes.

Neighbors said that Mr. Fariq was the eldest of five children and that the family had moved to the neighborhood, a quiet residential section of the Shah Alam suburb popular with faculty members from a nearby university, about a decade ago. Residents said the family was kind, decent and pious.

Mr. Fariq’s father, a senior official in the federal public works department, was a regular worshiper at the mosque at the end of the block, neighbors said; Mr. Fariq, the eldest of three sons and two daughters, attended less frequently because he was often out of town on trips with the airline.

“He’s a very nice man,” Ayop Jantan, a retiree who lives two doors down from the family, said of Mr. Fariq. “When he comes back with his luggage, he greets me like an uncle.”

Even knowing where to restart the search for the plane is difficult. Until Mr. Najib’s dramatic announcement about the likely course of the plane, many aircraft and ships were devoted to scanning the seas off Malaysia’s east coast — precisely the opposite direction from the new focus of the hunt.

“Malaysian officials are currently discussing with all partners how best to deploy assets along the two corridors” indicated by satellite data, the Malaysian transport ministry said in a written statement. “Both the northern and southern corridors are being treated with equal importance.”

A satellite orbiting 22,250 miles over the middle of the Indian Ocean received the final transmission, which, based on the angle from which the plane sent it, came from somewhere along one of the two corridors investigators are exploring.

The northern arc touches southern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan in central Asia before running across a huge swath of western and southwestern China, and ending in northern Laos. To reach most of those areas, the aircraft would have had to traverse heavily militarized areas in China, India or Pakistan, although it could have tried an end run across Myanmar.

The southern corridor, from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean, travels over open water with few islands. If the aircraft took that path, it might have passed near the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. These remote Australian islands, with a population of fewer than 1,000 people, have a small airport.

“It is a daunting task to even begin to plan how you would search an entire ocean,” said Commander Marks, the spokesman for the Seventh Fleet.

Share