Malaysia jet update

A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER, flight 318 to Beijing, sat on the tarmac Monday at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Flight 318 replaces 370, retired out of respect to the passengers and crew of the missing plane.

SEPANG, Malaysia — The investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took another confusing turn on Monday, as the authorities here reversed themselves and offered yet another version of the sequence of events in the crucial minutes before ground controllers lost contact with the jet early on March 8.

As the search for the missing Boeing 777 jet stretched into a 10th day, two of the nations helping in the hunt, Australia and Indonesia, agreed to divide between them a vast area of the southeastern Indian Ocean, with Indonesia focusing on equatorial waters and Australia beginning to search farther south for traces of the aircraft. To the north, China and Kazakhstan checked their radar records and tried to figure out whether the jet could have landed somewhere on their soil.

The Malaysian authorities said on Monday that the plane’s first officer — the co-pilot — was the last person in the cockpit to speak to ground control. But the government added to the confusion about what had happened on the plane by that time, withdrawing its assertion that a crucial communications system had already been disabled when the co-pilot spoke.

The chief executive of Malaysia Airlines says it is unclear when the missing plane’s communications system, known as Acars, was switched off.

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Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defense minister and acting transportation minister, had made that assertion on Sunday, saying that the aircraft’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or Acars, was disabled at 1:07 a.m. Saturday, well before the co-pilot’s verbal signoff. That appeared to point to possible complicity of the pilots in the plane’s disappearance.

But Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, said at a news conference early Monday evening that the Acars system had worked normally at 1:07 but then failed to send its next regularly scheduled update at 1:37 a.m., and could have been disabled at any point between those two times. “We don’t know when the Acars system was switched off,” he said.

Mr. Ahmad Jauhari said the co-pilot’s verbal signoff was given by radio at 1:19 a.m., and the aircraft’s transponder, which communicates with ground-based radar, ceased working about two minutes later.

The new account appeared to reopen the possibility that the aircraft was operating normally until 1:21 a.m., and that the two communications systems failed or were deactivated at the same time, not at separate points. That could raise additional questions about whether the plane was deliberately diverted, or experienced mechanical or electrical difficulties that crippled its communications and resulted in its flying an erratic course.

Though the possibility of an accident has not been excluded, the strong consensus among Malaysian and foreign experts involved in the investigation remains that deliberate action by someone on board was the most likely explanation for the disappearance, according to a person involved in the investigation. This person, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss publicly a matter that has become a criminal case, said investigators believed there were too many suspicious coincidences for the disappearance to have been entirely due to an accident.

Students gather around a three dimensional artwork of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that was painted on their school grounds in Makati city, Manila

Standing next to Mr. Ahmad Jauhari at the news conference, Mr. Hishammuddin waved off numerous questions about why he had said a day earlier that Acars had been disabled at 1:07 a.m. “What I said yesterday was based on fact, corroborated and verified,” he said. In response to another question, he said that uncertainty about the chronology underlined the importance of finding the aircraft and its data recorders.

After the last voice contact with the ground, radar data indicates that the aircraft turned off its planned flight path northeastward toward Beijing, and had headed west, back across the Malay Peninsula while rising in altitude and falling rapidly again, and then flew out over the Strait of Malacca and beyond, out of radar range, to an unknown location.

After the Acars system, the transponder and voice radio contact had all ceased, one device on the plane kept trying to communicate, a satellite transmission device usually used for sending maintenance data. That device kept sending occasional brief signals for several hours after all other contact was lost, Malaysian authorities say; the last signal received from that device indicated that the plane was on or near one of two broad arcs of the earth’s surface. One extends over Indonesia and remote areas of the southern Indian Ocean, the other over the Asian land mass, through western and southwestern China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and northern Laos.

By Monday, 26 nations were involved in searching those two arcs.

In the southern hemisphere, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority will lead the search through its Rescue Coordination Center, supported by the Australian Defense Force. “Australia is preparing to work with assets from a number of other countries, including surveillance aircraft from New Zealand and the United States,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a statement on Monday.

He said two Orion aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force that have been involved in the search since March 9 would be “re-tasked to search in the southern Indian Ocean” and that two more would join the search within the next 24 hours.

The police have been investigating the pilot, co-pilot and other crew members of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight since the day of its disappearance, Malaysia’s Transport Ministry said in a statement on Monday. The statement highlighted growing interest by the law enforcement authorities into whether any of the airline employees might have been complicit in the plane’s disappearance.

Adam Dolnik, a professor at the University of Wollongong in Australia who has studied terrorism in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, said that, judging from the information disclosed so far, there was nothing to suggest any involvement by a terrorist organization. He said, though, that there was the possibility of a “lone wolf” acting at least partly in the name of extremist beliefs.

Mr. Dolnik voiced skepticism that the two Iranian passengers who boarded the plane with stolen passports had played a role in diverting it. “For groups like Al Qaeda, which tried to take airliners down in midcourse flight by a suicide bomber since the mid-1990s, this is their fantasy target, and what they keep going for, but repeatedly they are unable to keep doing it,” he said. “But for a group like this to grow an entire plan — which would have to be quite sophisticated for them to be able to actually get the operational capabilities through the secure perimeter and on board an airplane — and to blow it on something like a stolen passport, it just doesn’t make any sense. What they would do is send operatives who have clean passports, to make sure they actually make it through immigration.”

Mr. Dolnik added: “If you’re a militant jihadist group, why would you ever go for Malaysia Airlines? If you have a predominantly Muslim country, one of the biggest Muslim countries, hitting the national carrier of that country really would be very risky in terms of constituency support or how people are going to view you.”

Malaysia’s Transport Ministry also said that three civil aviation investigators had arrived from France to share expertise gained from the search for Air France Flight 447, which disappeared nearly five years ago off the coast of Brazil. Searchers needed almost two years to find the Air France jet, an Airbus A330, on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

Investigators had an advantage in that case, because they had found more than 3,000 pieces of debris and 50 bodies floating in the ocean in the days and weeks immediately after the crash, giving them a rough sense of where the plane had entered the water. By contrast, there are still few clues to where the Malaysia Airlines jetliner finally came down.

The United States search effort is still focused on the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, in the northeast corner of the Indian Ocean, where the American destroyer Kidd and a surveillance plane are patrolling. In the vast, empty expanses of the southern oceans, however, aircraft can cover a very large area more quickly than ships and ship-based helicopters could.

Related: As U.S. Looks for Terror Links in Plane Case, Malaysia Rejects Extensive Help

WASHINGTON — With malicious intent strongly suspected in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, American intelligence and law enforcement agencies renewed their search over the weekend for any evidence that the plane’s diversion was part of a terrorist plot. But they have found nothing so far, senior officials said, and their efforts have been limited by the Malaysian authorities’ refusal to accept large-scale American assistance.

There are just two F.B.I. agents in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, where local investigators are hunting for clues that the two pilots or any of the other 237 people on board had links to militant groups or other motives to hijack the flight.

In the days after the plane went missing on March 8, American investigators scoured their huge intelligence databases for information about those on board but came up dry.

“We just don’t have the right to just take over the investigation,” said a senior American official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing. “There’s not a whole lot we can do absent of a request from them for more help or a development that relates to information we may have.”

With no obvious motive apparent, American investigators are considering a range of possibilities, though they caution that all remain merely speculative. Among them are involvement by Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate, which once discussed recruiting commercial pilots in Malaysia to crash a plane; an act by members of China’s Uighur minority, who have recently become more militant and could conceivably have targeted a plane headed to Beijing; a lone-wolf attack by someone without ties to established terrorist groups; or even a suicidal move by a troubled individual.

A central puzzle is why anyone would hijack a jetliner and then fly it for hours over the open ocean, as seems to be the most likely case. On Saturday, the Malaysian authorities opened a criminal inquiry after learning that two tracking devices aboard the aircraft had been turned off several minutes apart, indicating deliberate action, and that the plane appeared to have flown for as long as seven hours more.

American officials said the announcement of the criminal investigation did not change their view of the situation, as the Malaysians offered little evidence that had not already been learned in the past week.

Several senior American officials have played down the possibility that a terrorist network was behind the plane’s disappearance because no group has claimed responsibility for it. They said intelligence agencies had not detected chatter among terrorists about such a plot. Given the lack of traditional militant “signatures,” one official said, if terrorists were behind the episode, “it would be unlike anything we have seen before.”

In response to the news that Malaysian authorities had taken a flight simulator from the chief pilot’s home, American officials said that they were eager to know what the investigators had found and were willing to help search the computers. But as of Sunday afternoon, the officials said they knew little about the findings.

As part of their efforts in the days after the plane went missing to determine what had occurred, American analysts and law enforcement agencies conducted link analysis — a computer-based investigative technique that tries to make connections between individuals based on extensive government and airline databases — on the pilots and two Iranian passengers who were traveling on stolen passports. Those efforts, along with interviews with family members of the Iranian men and of two Americans who were on the plane, yielded nothing that pointed to terrorism, officials said.

“If it is a criminal act where the pilot decided to crash the airliner, there is little the U.S. can do,” said Rick Nelson, vice president of business development at Cross Match Technologies and a former senior counterterrorism official. “It’s very difficult to stop someone who one day decides to crash a plane. It is difficult to predict and to mitigate.”

The F.B.I., which has had an agent based at the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur for more than a decade, has developed a working relationship with law enforcement officials there in recent years. But American officials said they believed that the Malaysian leaders had rebuffed their offers of assistance because they did not want to appear as though they needed help with such a high-profile investigation.

Because two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese, one group with a conceivable motive to hijack the plane would be militant members of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group in China. Malaysian and Chinese news reports identified one passenger as Uighur, but American officials said they had no evidence that the passenger was associated with militant groups.

On Friday, Abdullah Mansour, the leader of the rebel Turkestan Islamic Party, told Reuters in an interview from his hide-out in Pakistan that the Uighurs’ “fight against China is our Islamic responsibility.” But he made no mention of the missing airliner.

Investigators are keeping in mind the long history of Qaeda connections and terrorist plots in Southeast Asia, including the double bombing of nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002, which killed more than 200 people. That attack was carried out by members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional militant group with close ties to Al Qaeda.

As investigators focus on the pilots and study possible motives for a hijacking, certain tactics that Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah considered years ago may be newly relevant. In 2001, leaders of the two groups discussed recruiting a Malaysian or Indonesian commercial pilot for a terrorist mission, according to a 2006 book by Kenneth J. Conboy, an American author who specializes in militant groups in Southeast Asia.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, considered using such pilots for a second wave of attacks on buildings or landmarks in the United States. Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian who studied biochemistry at California State University and experimented with biological weapons for Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, proposed crashing a commercial airliner into a passing American warship, the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, according to a local intelligence report cited in Mr. Conboy’s book on Jemaah Islamiyah, “The Second Front.”

Mr. Yazid was free from 2008 until last year, when he was detained in Malaysia and charged with helping to recruit fighters to send to Syria. He remains in custody.

Related: Questions Over Absence of Cellphone Calls From Missing Passengers

An artwork by Malaysian artist Safirah Rashid is seen on the Wall of Hope for the passengers of the missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 aeroplane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport

SEPANG, Malaysia — When hijackers took control of four airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001, and sent them hurtling low across the countryside toward New York and Washington, anxious passengers and flight attendants turned on their cellphones and began making calls to loved ones, airline managers and the authorities.

But when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did a wide U-turn in the middle of the night over the Gulf of Thailand and then spent nearly half an hour swooping over two large Malaysian cities and various towns and villages, there was apparently silence. As far as investigators have been able to determine, there have been no phone calls, Twitter or Weibo postings, Instagram photos or any other communication from anyone aboard the aircraft since it was diverted.

There has been no evidence “of any number they’re trying to contact, but anyway they are still checking and there are millions of records for them to process,” said Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, at a news conference on Monday.

The apparent absence of any word from the aircraft in an era of nearly ubiquitous mobile communications has prompted considerable debate among pilots, telecommunications specialists and others. Most of the people aboard the plane were from Malaysia or China, two countries where mobile phone use is extremely prevalent, especially among affluent citizens who take international flights.

Some theorize the silence signifies that the plane was flying too high for personal electronic devices to be used. Others wonder whether people aboard the flight even tried to make calls or send messages.

According to military radar, the aircraft was flying extremely high shortly after its turn — as much as 45,000 feet, above the certified maximum altitude of 43,100 feet for the Boeing 777-200. It then descended as it crossed Peninsular Malaysia, flying as low as 23,000 feet before moving up to 29,500 feet and cruising there.

Vincent Lau, an electronics professor specializing in wireless communications at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said that the altitude might have prevented passengers’ cellphones from connecting to base stations on the ground even if the phones were turned on during the flight or had been left on since departure.

The hijacked planes on Sept. 11 were flying very low toward urban targets when passengers and flight attendants made calls from those aircraft, he said.

Base station signals spread out considerably over distance. So cellphones in a plane a few miles up, like Flight 370, would receive little if any signal, he said.

Base station design has improved since the Sept. 11 attacks to provide better, more focused coverage of specific areas on the ground. But that also means somewhat less signal intensity is wasted in directions where callers are unlikely to be located, such as directly overhead, Mr. Lau added.

Lam Wong-hing, a wireless communications specialist at the University of Hong Kong , said that cellphones transmit at one watt or less, while base stations typically transmit at 20 watts and sometimes much more. So even if a cellphone showed that it was receiving a signal while aloft, it might not be able to transmit a signal that was strong enough to make a connection, he said.

The metal in an aircraft reduces cellphone signals somewhat. If a passenger had pressed a cellphone against a plastic window with a line of sight to a cellphone tower then it is possible a connection might have been made even at a fairly high altitude, because plastic barely blocks a cellphone signal at all, Dr. Lam said.

Many aircraft carry satellite phones, and the Malaysia Airlines jet was equipped with them in business class. The plane continued to send satellite pings for nearly seven hours after it was apparently diverted.

But the satellite phones are part of an aircraft’s in-flight entertainment system. If someone deliberately diverted a plane and turned off its transponder and other communications equipment, that person is likely to have disabled the in-flight entertainment system so that passengers could not figure out from the map that they were flying in the wrong direction, said a telecommunications expert who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media.

If the entertainment system was turned off, the satellite phones also would not work, the expert said.

The Chinese news media have reported that there have been some instances of people calling cellphones of passengers of the missing flight and hearing ring tones, sometimes days after the plane disappeared. Telecom experts have dismissed that as evidence that the cellphones are still in use, saying that a ring tone may be heard while the international phone system is searching for a phone and trying to connect a call.

There have been no reports of anyone answering calls to the cellphones of passengers or flight attendants aboard the plane.

Investigators do not know if anyone aboard the plane even tried to make a call. One theory is that someone may have intentionally depressurized the plane as it soared to an unusually high altitude right after the turnaround, which would have quickly rendered passengers and flight attendants unconscious, pilots said. Whoever diverted the plane could have disabled the release of oxygen masks.

Dr. James Ho, an associate professor of medicine at Hong Kong University, said that death could come within minutes if someone were the equivalent of outdoors at 45,000 feet. But without information on the speed of depressurization, it is hard to predict the medical consequences, he said.

A table used by pilots for “time of useful consciousness” without an oxygen supplement at various altitudes shows only nine to 15 seconds at 45,000 feet, compared with five to 10 minutes at 22,000 feet.

Mobile phone service is widely available in sizable areas of western China and eastern Kazakhstan, raising the question of why nobody from the plane has tried to make a call if it did fly north and land safely, instead of flying out into the Indian Ocean until it ran out of fuel.

If the flight did land safely somewhere with the passengers and flight crew still healthy, whoever was in charge of the aircraft would also face a formidable task in any attempt to provide food, water and shelter for more than 200 people.

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