As the search for a Boeing aircraft carrying 239 people risks becoming the longest hunt in modern civil aviation, Malaysia broadened its appeal for international help while the area being combed through grows larger every day.
Authorities asked 25 countries to support the mission, with no trace of the 777-200 wide-body after more than a week of continuous search that now stretches from Kazakhstan in the north to the two-mile deep waters off Australia in the south.
While the past week brought no breakthrough, authorities established that the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. airliner operated for almost seven hours after its last contact with air traffic controllers on March 8. That has reinforced closer scrutiny of the crew. Police searched the homes of the pilot and co-pilot March 15 to help answer why the jet was deliberately flown off its course, racing against time as the trail of isolated signals caught during the journey risks going cold.
“If it’s gone off into the Indian Ocean somewhere, there’s a good chance you’ll never find it,” said Paul Hayes, director of aviation security in London at Ascend Worldwide, which collects and analyzes aviation data. “It’s the first aircraft that’s ever disappeared like this with no suggestion of a motive, with nobody claiming responsibility. With other hijacked aircraft, you knew they were hijacked.”
The search area has been “significantly” expanded and the nature of the search has changed, Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said March 16 in Kuala Lumpur.
“From focusing mainly on shallow seas, we are now looking at large tracts of land, crossing 11 countries, as well as deep, remote oceans,” he said at a press conference.
The “most probable” theory is the plane is beneath the Indian Ocean, though there isn’t physical evidence yet to make that conclusion, U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said March 16 on CBS television’s “Face the Nation.”
Malaysian investigators are treating both the northern and southern search zones with equal importance, though U.S. investigators are growing more convinced that the jetliner’s most likely last-known position was in the zone about 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) west of Perth, Australia, said two people in the U.S. government who are familiar with the readings. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was told that is the most promising lead, one of the people said.
The plane’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, which transmits text messages and data to and from planes, was disabled just before Flight 370 left Malaysia’s east coast and its transponder was switched off near the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese air-traffic control, Najib said at a March 15 briefing. That is “consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” he said.
The Acars system was disabled before the last voice transmission from the cockpit, Malaysian officials said at the separate briefing on March 16. The order of events suggests that the plan to take over the plane and hide it from the ground began before the pilot signed off with air-traffic controllers.
A hijacker sophisticated enough to understand the 777’s systems may have ordered the Acars shutdown, or one or both of the pilots may have hatched the plot, Patrick Veillette, a Park City, Utah, commercial pilot who was taught aviation safety, said in an interview.
The actions on the flight deck indicate a high level of training in aviation and the 777 specifically, Veillette said. “We’re not talking about sitting in a simulator or reading a book for an hour,” he said. “This would have required substantial training.”
Satellite transmissions that weren’t turned off along with other communications systems showed Malaysian Airline Flight 370 operated for almost seven hours after last making contact on March 8, Najib said. That may have taken the Boeing Co. 777-200 more than 3,000 miles from where it was last tracked west of Malaysia and pushed it to the limits of its fuel load if it was airborne the whole period.
It is possible that the satellites could have picked up a signal from the plane while it was on the ground as long as the electricity was on, said Civil Aviation Chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman. Malaysia has not received any contact from any groups making demands over the plane, he said.
The new satellite transmission data indicated the plane was last spotted in an arc that reached as far as Kazakhstan in the north to an area in the Indian Ocean off Australia in the south. Malaysia is now enlisting the help of 25 nations, up from 14, Hishammuddin said.
Among the countries Malaysia is now asking for assistance are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia and France, the Transport Ministry said in the statement. Malaysia is also asking the U.S., China and France for additional data to try to narrow the area.
France has military satellite capacity in the region and will help provide “information drawn from satellite images,” said Colonel Gilles Jaron, operational spokesman for France’s defense ministry.
Even with its expanded call for help, Malaysia may not be as forthcoming as it should with information, said U.S. Representative Peter King, a member of the House homeland security committee who leads its panel on counterterrorism and intelligence.
Malaysian officials have been resisting help from the FBI and Interpol, King, a New York Republican, said March 16 on ABC’s “This Week” program. “My understanding is that Malaysia is not really cooperating at all,” he said. “They’re very reluctant to lay what they have out on the table.”
A statement the same day from Interpol said the international police organization “does not wish to get involved in any kind of controversy that would only take the focus away from finding missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 and the cause of its disappearance.” Lyons, France-based Interpol said it “has been working day and night to offer whatever assistance Malaysian investigators and law enforcement officers might require. We will continue to offer to do so.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the FBI, declined to comment.
Malaysia said officials discussed with partnering countries how best to deploy assets along the two corridors after Najib said that data indicated two new zones of interest. Malaysia ended the search in the South China Sea along the plane’s intended flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The pilot and co-pilot had not requested to fly together, Hishammuddin said. The deeper probe of the two men by police included interviewing family members. Authorities are also investigating ground staff.
“The worst part about all of this is what it does to the families,” said Steve Marks, an aviation lawyer who has represented the families of victims for the majority of aircraft accidents over three decades, including in the case of Air France 447.
“It’s a roller coaster of emotion,” he said. “It starts with the air traffic communications stopping, and then the next thing you know it was maybe hijacked and maybe their loved ones are even still alive. I’ve seen that curve before and it’s really torture on the families.”
India said it was awaiting new instructions after spending almost a week looking in the Andaman Sea because Malaysian military radar indicated that the plane had turned back and crossed the Malay peninsula heading west.
Australia has already begun to search closer to its territory sending an AP-3C Orion aircraft to look north and west of the Cocos Islands, chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley said in an e-mailed statement. The Cocos are about 2,000 miles northwest of Perth.
Australia’s radar network includes a long-range system capable of detecting air targets. A base station in Laverton, Western Australia state has a range of about 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) covering most of the ocean south of Java and west from Perth, according to the Defense Ministry’s website.
Asked whether Australia had picked up any signals consistent with the aircraft on its Jindalee Operational Radar Network, which covers large swathes of the southern Indian Ocean, Leonie Kolmar, a spokeswoman for the Australian Defence Department, said the department “won’t be providing comment” on the military surveillance system.
Even if the aircraft flew within the range of Australia’s JORN radar system, it’s possible that it wouldn’t have been picked up, according to Andrew Davies, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a government-funded think tank.
The range the radar reaches “depends on the state of the ionosphere,” the atmospheric layer that long-range radar systems use to help detect objects beyond the horizon, he said. The early morning hours when the aircraft may have passed within range “is a difficult time” for such systems, he said. “The atmosphere is starting to warm up and the ionosphere is a bit turbulent.”
In addition, the technology is designed to detect objects moving towards Australia. “Things that are moving towards or away from the radar are much easier to detect than things that are moving sideways” as the Malaysian Air plane appears to have traveled, he said.
Expanding the search into the Indian Ocean, the third-largest body of water in the world after the Pacific and Atlantic, greatly increases the complexity of the search while potentially diminishing the chances of finding the plane.
The southern Indian Ocean includes some of the world’s most forbidding underwater areas, said Dave Gallo, director of special projects for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, in an interview. Gallo helped lead the search for Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 in 2 1/2 miles of water. While debris was found floating soon after that crash, its black boxes and main structures weren’t found on the seabed for almost two years.
“The further south you come from Malaysia, the more complicated, deeper and rugged the terrain gets,” Gallo said. “We could be talking about 3 miles, 4 miles, easily, of depth. Possibly deeper than Air France 447.”
A possible if less likely track goes toward Kazakhstan from northern Thailand, which would force the airliner to fly through Chinese and possibly Indian air space.
Nations along the northern track such as India and Pakistan have robust air-defense radar systems, and no evidence has turned up that the rogue plane flew into that airspace, according to a person familiar with the probe, who spoke on condition of not being named because of the sensitivity of the information.
Kazakhstan hasn’t been approached for help in the mission, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhanbolat Usenov said.
“I can’t believe a plane could fly into Indian airspace undetected,” said Hayes of Ascend.
The jet made its last satellite contact at 8:11 a.m., according to Najib. Malaysian officials previously said the plane was last tracked by its transponder, a device that helps radar find its location more precisely, at 1:30 a.m.
Najib was briefed on the new data by investigators from two U.S. agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. At his press conference, he said it showed with a “great degree of certainty” that its system known as Acars was turned off, along with its transponder a short time later. Without a transponder, radar can’t identify a plane and has difficulty locating it precisely.
Whoever was piloting the plane also commanded its flight-management system to make a turn to the west. That turn was reported to the airline by some of the final data sent by the Acars system, the person familiar with the investigation said.
Disabling Acars transmissions is a multi-step process that can require even an experienced aviator to consult flight manuals, said Kenneth Musser, a retired Delta Air Lines Inc. 777 pilot who later flew and helped train crews at Asiana Airlines Inc.
That move, combined with the disabling of Flight 370’s transponder, indicates intervention by “someone who knows the system on the airplane,” said Bill Waldock, professor of safety science who teaches accident investigations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. “That has to be the crew or someone who’s intimately familiar with how a 777 operates,” Waldock said.
Beyond an expanding search area, the investigation has turned toward the pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and Fariq Abdul Hamid, the first officer. Fariq, 27, joined the airline in 2007, while Zaharie had worked at the carrier since 1981 and logged 18,365 flying hours.
Zaharie displayed a deep passion for the Boeing jetliner that included construction of his own flight simulator using a computer program, according to an online post on a community of simulator enthusiasts. Experts have confiscated the simulator and are studying the it for possible clues, the Transport Ministry said.
Najib defended Malaysia’s handling of the search after a week of false leads and at times contradictory communication from authorities that has prompted criticism from China, where most of the passengers are from.
“We understand the desperate need for information on behalf of the families and those watching around the world,” he said. “But we have a responsibility to the investigation and the families to only release information that has been corroborated. And our primary motivation has always been to find the plane.”