How Missing-Jet Case Became Longest-Ever Disappearance: Timeline

The disappearance of Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 370 has galvanized a multinational search, spawned theories ranging from an accident to air piracy and repeatedly dashed hopes that a resolution was at hand.

Below is a timeline of the events that began with the jet’s departure from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing:

March 8:

12:41 a.m.: Flight 370 takes off from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew members on board.

1:07 a.m.: Last transmission from the Boeing Co. 777-200ER via an onboard text-and-data messaging system known by the acronym Acars.

1:19 a.m.: Last communication from the cockpit. Initially, officials said investigations showed the copilot said, “alright, good night” as the last words. They released a transcript on April 1 saying the last words were “Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero.” Plane leaves Malaysian airspace, heading across the Gulf of Thailand toward Vietnam.

1:21 a.m.: Radar transponder is switched off.

1:37 a.m.: Next Acars transmission is due, and never comes.

2:15 a.m.: Malaysian military radar spots an aircraft on the west side of Peninsular Malaysia that isn’t using its transponder. This development won’t be publicly known until about a week later. The radar target is Flight 370, heading away from its planned route.

6:30 a.m.: Flight 370 is scheduled to arrive in Beijing.

7:39 a.m.: China’s Xinhua news agency sends a flash bulletin saying contact had been lost with Flight 370. Chinese passengers make up about two-thirds of the people on board the plane.

8:11 a.m.: Last satellite signal sent from the plane, known as a “handshake,” is detected. This development won’t be known for about a week.

8:19 a.m.: Evidence of a “partial handshake” between the aircraft and the ground station eight minutes after the last complete communication. This information was released March 25.

9:15 a.m.: No response from the aircraft when the ground station sent the next message, indicating the plane was no longer logged on to the network.

Initial search efforts focus on the Gulf of Thailand, where twin oil slicks stir concern that they signal a crash on the plane’s known route. The discovery that two passengers were traveling on stolen passports triggers speculation that terrorism may have been involved.

March 9: Vietnamese searchers find objects in the Gulf of Thailand only to conclude later that they’re unrelated to Flight 370. Representatives for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing travel to Malaysia to assist with the investigation. Speculation arises that the plane deviated from its route.

March 10: Malaysia expands the search area farther into the South China Sea after a plane alerted Hong Kong air traffic controllers about possible debris. Vietnam searchers look for a suspected window piece that was spotted from the air. The leads prove fruitless. Searchers are unable to locate a yellow inflatable object that a Vietnamese helicopter spotted earlier.

March 11: The search expands east again as suspected debris is found off the coast of Vietnam. One theory evaporates as authorities in Malaysia and Interpol say the passengers with stolen passports probably aren’t associated with terrorism.

March 12: Malaysia says a criminal probe is looking into hijacking and sabotage among other theories. Vietnam says Malaysia hasn’t been cooperative in search and that the flight may have turned west after last signal. News reports surface that the co-pilot had guests in the cockpit in a previous flight.

March 13: Speculation of the crash’s location moves toward the Indian Ocean as evidence mounts that the flight continued away from its route after controllers lost radar contact. The shift in focus follows a brief flurry of optimism for a breakthrough. Chinese satellite images show floating objects between the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, and the Malaysian government says later that they are unrelated to Flight 370.

March 14: The Andaman Sea becomes the latest empty lead in the search. Malaysia looks at the possibility of pilot and crew involvement, while Prime Minister Najib Razak postpones a trip to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to oversee the hunt.

March 15: Satellite transmissions trace the missing airliner to the Indian Ocean off of Australia. The pilots’ homes are searched, and Najib says new information shows the flight was intentionally diverted.

March 16: Searchers shift their sights to the Indian Ocean on the basis of the satellite-signals evidence, which shows that the plane operated for about seven hours after its last contact with air traffic control.

March 17: Australia leads the search in the Indian Ocean while the law enforcement probe spreads across multiple fronts. Authorities discuss pilot suicide as one possibility, police investigate a flight engineer who was a passenger.

March 18: The disappearance becomes the longest in modern aviation history. The U.S. joins Australia in the Indian Ocean search, scanning the waters across an area 1 1/2 times as big as California.

March 19: The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation joins Malaysia’s inquiry, which now includes a probe of data removed from the pilot’s home flight simulator on Feb. 3. An analysis of the 777’s probable fuel reserves helps narrow the Indian Ocean search area to a patrol zone about the size of Italy, half as big as a day earlier.

March 20: Satellite images of objects off Australia’s west coast spur an air-and-sea search across a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean. The photos were taken on March 16, and patrol craft aren’t able to locate any wreckage.

March 21: A second day of air searches turns up nothing. An analysis of so-called pings from the aircraft by satellite provider Inmarsat Plc concludes that the plane maintained a steady course and speed after radar contact was lost. The assessment is consistent with details suggesting that the plane was commanded, at least initially, from the cockpit and not disabled by an accident.

March 22: As the mystery reaches the two-week mark and a day of air and sea patrols produces nothing more promising than a sighting of a wooden pallet, China announces that scrutiny of satellite scans has revealed a new image of a large structure in the search zone. The photo, captured on March 18, appears to show an object measuring 22 meters by 13 meters floating 120 kilometers to the southwest of those in the March 16 images.

March 23: Malaysian authorities disclose that a French satellite has found radar traces of possible debris, without saying when and where the images were captured. Search efforts off Australia fail to produce a breakthrough as more aircraft join the hunt and ships with specialist equipment begin to arrive.

March 24: Najib, the prime minister, says Malaysia has concluded the flight ended in the Indian Ocean “far from any possible landing sites,” ruling out theories of a detour over Asia or an island landing.

March 25: Families and friends of Chinese passengers protested in front of the Malaysian embassy in Beijing. Malaysian Air and Boeing’s records of MH370’s maintenance and crew are sought by a law firm representing the uncle of one of the passengers as Chicago-based Ribbeck Law Chartered petitioned for information in Illinois state court.

March 26: Satellite images from Airbus Group NV taken on March 23 showed 122 potential objects in the southern Indian Ocean in a 400-square kilometer area, about 2,557 kilometers from Perth. Some were a meter in length, and others were as long as 23 meters, and some appeared to be bright.

March 27: Aircraft searching for the missing Malaysian jet suspended their operations because of bad weather. Thai satellite images taken on March 24 showed more than 300 objects in the southern Indian Ocean, while a Japanese satellite detected about a dozen pieces of possible debris in a March 26 image.

March 28: The three-week hunt for Flight 370 focused on a new area in the Indian Ocean after radar data indicated the plane probably flew a shorter distance than earlier estimated. The new zone is about 1,100 kilometers to the northeast of the previous search location. Ribbeck Law filed a second petition for data and documents from Boeing and Malaysian Air, while its first was thrown out by a judge.

March 29: Australian and Chinese ships recovered unidentified objects from the Indian Ocean, the first time in the search that material had been picked up. Malaysia and U.S. officials said nothing unusual has been discovered on the pilot’s flight simulator so far, though the FBI’s work won’t be complete for another few days or a week.

March 30: The objects retrieved on March 29 were identified as “fishing equipment and flotsam.” Malaysian Air said it will fly family members to Perth only once it has been confirmed that any wreckage found belongs to Flight 370.

March 31: Australian ship Ocean Shield departed for the search area after being fitted with equipment to detect black-box recorders with the hunt for the jetliner in its fourth week. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said there was no time limit on the search. Ribbeck Law’s second bid for Boeing and Malaysian Air to turn over data and documents were also thrown out by the same judge.

April 1: Malaysia released the full transcript of communications between Flight 370 and Kuala Lumpur’s air traffic control, which the government said revealed nothing abnormal. An Australian official overseeing search operations said crews face an extended mission because of difficult conditions and a lack of information.

April 2: British nuclear submarine HMS Tireless and survey ship HMS Echo joined the hunt. The cause of the disappearance might never be known, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said.

April 3: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib toured an Australian air base coordinating the effort for the plane.

April 4: Crews started underwater scouring of the southern Indian Ocean for pings emitted by the aircraft’s black box as their batteries near the end of a lifespan of about 30 days.

April 5: Chinese patrol ship Haixun 01 detected a pulse signal with a frequency of 37.5 kilohertz while searching in the southern Indian Ocean, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. While underwater locator beacons transmit at that frequency, the signal could not be confirmed as related to Flight 370. It later detected a second, longer unidentified signal.

April 6: As many as 12 planes and 13 ships searched for the plane’s wreckage on the 30th day it went missing with black boxes’ power supply due to run out.

April 7: Australia said the towed pinger-locator on ship Ocean Shield detected a first signal for two hours and 20 minutes, and a second one for 13 minutes over the weekend. The signals were heard about 600 kilometers northeast of where Haixun 01 picked up sounds earlier. Inmarsat Plc, whose calculations first showed the plane flew south over the Indian Ocean, said it’s crunching data in a bid to better establish the jet’s last position.

April 8: Ships failed to detect new pings as investigators reduced the search area by almost two-thirds.

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