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Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Where is Malaysian Airlines Flight 370?

In two earlier posts, I analysed the demise of Air France Flight 447. For the last few days the posts have been getting a lot of traffic, so I updated them with reference to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Since we are now in the fifth day of this saga--long enough to have been told that many of the preliminary reports were wrong--I'll take a stab at analysing this disaster. I'm sure there will be several updates, which we shall add as information is received.

First of all, once thing is absolutely certain: The 227 passengers on board (minus the hijackers themselves) were kidnapped at 1:40 am on Saturday, March 8. That wasn't obvious at the time, but it should have been obvious by the time Malaysian Airlines declared the plane missing, an hour after it was to have entered the approach pattern to land in Beijing.

Here's what happened in the first hour of the planes' flight--the only hour we know anything about:

At 12:41 am Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, pilot of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 9M-MRO, received clearance to take off from the control tower at Kuala Lampur International Airport. The plane continued to climb out under the control of Departure Control, and set course for Waypoint IGARI, at 6° 56' 12N 103° 35' 6E in the Gulf of Thailand. National Air Traffic Control Centre assistant director Siti Sarah Lebai Abu guided the flight until turning it over to the National Air Traffic Control of Vietnam.

It was at that moment that Siti claims to have noticed that Flight 370's transponder blinked out. This should have been a cause for alarm: jet aircraft are required to keep their transponders on at all times, and transponder failure constitutes an in-flight emergency. But no alarm was raised. Vietnam's NATC never heard from flight 370. One hour into its flight, it was already missing at sea.

And at that point our knowledge of Flight 370 ends, five days in. There are scattered reports that a plane was picked up on radar in the Indian Ocean, clear on the other side of Malaysia. Or that one was heard as it passed over the eastern coast. Or that cell phones of passengers continued to ring hours after it would have run out of fuel. But none of this tells us where 9M-MRO went, or where it is now. With the fuel on board, it could have flown as far as Pakistan--or into the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The last time a plane left its flight course and went dark on the radar screens was September 11, 2001, when it happened to four different planes, all at about the same time. So we can't say that this has never happened before. What we can say is that every time this has happened, it was the result of a hijacking.

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