Military radar suggests missing plane turned back | Otago Daily Times Online News : Otago, South Island, New Zealand & International News
Military personnel search for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane over the South China Sea. Photo Reuters
Malaysia's military believes a jetliner missing for almostfour days turned and flew hundreds of kilometres to the westafter it last made contact with civilian air traffic controloff the country's east coast, a senior officer told Reuters.
In one of the most baffling mysteries in recent aviationhistory, a massive search operation for the Malaysia AirlinesBoeing 777-200ER has so far found no trace of the aircraft orthe 239 passengers and crew.
Malaysian authorities have previously said flight MH370disappeared about an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpurfor the Chinese capital Beijing.
"It changed course after Kota Bharu and took a loweraltitude. It made it into the Malacca Strait," the seniormilitary officer, who has been briefed on investigations,told Reuters.
That would appear to rule out sudden catastrophic mechanicalfailure, as it would mean the plane flew around 500 km at least after its last contact with air trafficcontrol, although its transponder and other tracking systemswere off.
A non-military source familiar with the investigations saidthe report was one of several theories and was being checked.
At the time it lost contact with civilian air trafficcontrol, the plane was roughly midway between Malaysia's eastcoast town of Kota Bharu and the southern tip of Vietnam,flying at 35,000 ft (10,670 metres).
The Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest shippingchannels, runs along Malaysia's west coast.
Malaysia's Berita Harian newspaper quoted air force chiefRodzali Daud as saying the plane was last detected at 2.40a.m. by military radar near the island of Pulau Perak at thenorthern end of the Strait of Malacca. It was flying about1,000 metres lower than its previous altitude, he was quotedas saying.
There was no word on what happened to the plane thereafter.
The effect of turning off the transponder is to make theaircraft inert to secondary radar, so civil controllerscannot identify it. Secondary radar interrogates thetransponder and gets information about the plane's identity,speed and height.
It would however still be visible to primary radar, which isused by militaries.
Police had earlier said they were investigating whether anypassengers or crew on the plane had personal or psychologicalproblems that might explain its disappearance, along with thepossibility of a hijack, sabotage or mechanical failure.
There was no distress signal or radio contact indicating aproblem and, in the absence of any wreckage or flight data,police have been left trawling through passenger and crewlists for potential leads.
"Maybe somebody on the flight has bought a huge sum ofinsurance, who wants family to gain from it or somebody whohas owed somebody so much money, you know, we are looking atall possibilities," Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakartold a news conference.
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"We are looking very closely at the video footage taken atthe KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport), we arestudying the behavioural pattern of all the passengers."
The airline said it was taking seriously a report by a SouthAfrican woman who said the co-pilot of the missing plane hadinvited her and a female travelling companion to sit in thecockpit during a flight two years ago, in an apparent breachof security.
"Malaysia Airlines has become aware of the allegations beingmade against First Officer Fariq Ab Hamid which we take veryseriously. We are shocked by these allegations. We have notbeen able to confirm the validity of the pictures and videosof the alleged incident," the airline said.
The woman, Jonti Roos, said in an interview with Australia'sChannel Nine TV that she and her friend were invited to flyin the cockpit by Hamid and the pilot between Phuket,Thailand and Kuala Lumpur in December 2011. The TV channelshowed pictures of the four in the cockpit.
A huge search operation for the missing plane has been mostlyfocused on the shallow waters of the Gulf of Thailand offMalaysia's east coast, although the Strait of Malacca hasbeen included since Sunday.
Navy ships, military aircraft, helicopters, coastguard andcivilian vessels from 10 nations have criss-crossed the seasoff both coasts of Malaysia without success.
The fact that at least two passengers on board had usedstolen passports has raised suspicions of foul play. ButSoutheast Asia is known as a hub for false documents that arealso used by smugglers, illegal migrants and asylum seekers.
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble named the two men asIranians aged 18 and 29, who had entered Malaysia using theirreal passports before using the stolen European documents toboard the Beijing-bound flight.
"The more information we get, the more we are inclined toconclude it is not a terrorist incident," Noble said.
In Washington, the director of the Central IntelligenceAgency said intelligence officials could not rule outterrorism as a factor. "You cannot discount any theory," CIADirector John Brennan said.
Malaysian police chief Khalid said the younger man, who hesaid was 19, appeared to be an illegal immigrant. His motherwas waiting for him in Frankfurt and had been in contact withauthorities, he said.
"We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terroristgroup, and we believe he was trying to migrate to Germany,"Khalid said.
Asked if that meant he ruled out a hijack, Khalid said: "(Weare giving) same weightage to all (possibilities) until wecomplete our investigations."
Both men entered Malaysia on Feb 28, at least one fromPhuket, in Thailand, eight days before boarding the flight toBeijing, Malaysian immigration chief Aloyah Mamat told thenews conference. Both held onward reservations to WesternEurope.
Police in Thailand, where the Italian and Austrian passportswere stolen and the tickets used by the two men were booked,said they did not think they were linked to the disappearanceof the plane.
"We haven't ruled it out, but the weight of evidence we'regetting swings against the idea that these men are or wereinvolved in terrorism," Supachai Puikaewcome, chief of policein the Thai resort city of Pattaya, told Reuters.
About two-thirds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew nowpresumed to have died aboard the plane were Chinese. Othernationalities included 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, sixAustralians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.
China has deployed 10 satellites using high-resolution earthimaging capabilities, visible light imaging and othertechnologies to "support and assist in the search and rescueoperations", the People's Liberation Army Daily said.
U.S. government officials from the National TransportationSafety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration havearrived in the region to provide "any necessary assistance"with the investigation, White House spokesman Jay Carney saidin Washington.
The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records of anycommercial aircraft in service. Its only previous fatal crashcame on July 6 last year when Asiana Airlines Flight 214struck a seawall on landing in San Francisco, killing threepeople.
U.S. planemaker Boeing has declined to comment beyond a briefstatement saying it was monitoring the situation.
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