Tuesday, 18 March 2014
Well over a week after the disappearance of flight MH370 - which now is the longest official disappearance of a modern jet in aviation history - with no official trace of the missing plane yet revealed, the investigation, which as we reported over the weekend has focused on the pilots and specifically on Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, earlier today revealed that on his home-made flight simulator had been loaded five Indian Ocean practice runways, among which those of Male in the Maldives, that of the US owned base at Sergio Garcia, as well as other runways in India and Sri Lanka - all notable runways as all are possible landing spots based on the flight's potential trajectories. The Malay Mail Online reported, "*The simulation programmes are based on runways at the Male International Airport in Maldives, an airport owned by the United States (Diego Garcia), and three other runways in India and Sri Lanka, all have runway lengths of 1,000 metres*."
“We are not discounting the possibility that the plane landed on a runway that might not be heavily monitored, in addition to the theories that the plane landed on sea, in the hills, or in an open space,” the source was quoted as saying.
At this point the facts in the case are about as sketchy as any "data" on US Treasury holdings, but here is what was said on the record:
"Although Malay Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein denied yesterday that the plane had landed at US military base Diego Garcia, the source told the daily that this possibility will still be investigated based on the data found in Zaharie’s flight simulator software. The police had seized the flight simulator from the 53-year-old pilot’s house in Shah Alam on Saturday and reassembled it at the police headquarters where experts are conducting checks."
Previous reports indicated that the plane flew towards Checkpoint Gival, south of the Thai island of Phuket, and was last plotted heading northwest towards another checkpoint, Igrex, used for route P628 that would take it over the Andaman Islands and which carriers use to fly towards Europe.
Still, the Maldives news is of particular note since earlier today, Haaveru Online, quoted locals who said they had seen a "low flying jet" whose description is approximate to what flight MH370 looked like. From the source:
Whilst the disappearance of the Boeing 777 jet, carrying 239 passengers has left the whole world in bewilderment, several residents of Kuda Huvadhoo told Haveeru on Tuesday *that they saw a "low flying jumbo jet" at around 6:15am on March 8.*
*They said that it was a white aircraft, with red stripes across it – which is what the Malaysia Airlines flights typically look like.*
*Eyewitnesses from the Kuda Huvadhoo concurred that the aeroplane was travelling North to South-East, towards the Southern tip of the Maldives – Addu*. They also noted the incredibly loud noise that the flight made when it flew over the island.
"I've never seen a jet flying so low over our island before. We've seen seaplanes, but I'm sure that this was not one of those. I could even make out the doors on the plane clearly," said an eyewitness.
"It's not just me either, several other residents have reported seeing the exact same thing. Some people got out of their houses to see what was causing the tremendous noise too."
A local aviation expert told Haveeru that it is "likely" for MH370 to have flown over the Maldives. The possibility of any aircraft flying over the island at the reported time is extremely low, the expert added.
So did the pilot hijack the plane, reprogram the flight path, turn off the transponder, and fly low above the surface and below radar all the way to the Maldives, or alternatively, US airbase, Diego Garcia, where Captain Shah promptly offloaded 20+ tons of still unknown cargo? Some experts opine on just this, by way of the Telegraph:
If the Maldive lead turns out to be a strong one, then the next question is: could the plane conceivably have flown to Somalia? Or somewhere in the southern Arabian peninsula or Iran? Somalia seems a much more likely destination for a hijacker with its known al-Qaeda connections.
Timing is issue with claimed Maldives sighting, because 06:15 local (01:15UTC) is 8h after #MH370 loss of contact.
— David KaminskiMorrow (@FlightDKM) March 18, 2014
Kaminski Morrow adds:
- The plane, a Boeing 777-200, was capable of travelling as far as the Maldives
- Male is the main airport but the sighting appears to have come from an atoll a long way south
- Commercial aircraft-tracking software, while not always reliable, doesn’t seem to show any other nearby traffic with which a sighting might have been confused
It is all hugely, hugely tentative - and I wouldn't want to vouch for the newspaper which is the source of this information.
But theoretically it could be possible.
The vital detail is the fuel; Malaysia Airlines has not said how much fuel was on board, other than to say "enough for the trip to Beijing".
Therefore we can't tell if that was enough to loop around and make it back to the Maldives.
So far there have been few firm theories about MH370 having landed on the US airbase in the middle of the Indian Ocean, some 800 miles south of Male in the Maldives.
ABC had this to say:
Theories about what happened to missing Malaysia Flight MH370 now span a 2 million-plus square mile area of open ocean and southeast Asian land, including one mysterious island in the Indian Ocean known as Diego Garcia.
While aviation experts and armchair theorists continue to come up with plausible locations, the jet could have landed or crashed. Many theories have included Diego Garcia as a notable landing strip.
The island atoll is a British territory in the central Indian Ocean and is home to a United States Navy support facility — not exactly a U.S. base, but a home for 1700 military personnel, 1,500 civilian contractors, and various Naval equipment.
The island — named after 16th century Spanish explorer Diego Garcia de Moguer — gained some notoriety in the past 10 years after reports claimed that the U.S. used Diego Garcia to transport and detain alleged terrorists.
Expect the US military to have zero official comments on the matter, and even less if indeed MH370 landed there, or merely used the base as a transit stop on its route further west, potentially to Africa.
* * *
There are other theories of course, some of which involve none other than such aviation experts as US politicians.
Michael McCaul, a Republican congressman from Texas, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said that the plane may have actually landed and could be used by terrorist groups.
John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, helpfully tweeted a link to possible runways where the plane could have landed.
Peter King, a Republican congressman representing New York, suggests the Chinese have doctored some of their satellite images to hide the sophistication of their systems.
But Mr King said he was not aware of terrorist "chatter". He said on This Week:
QuoteNo, there's been no terrorist connections whatsoever. There's been no terrorist chatter. There's nothing out there indicating it's terrorists. Doesn't mean it's not, but so far nothing has been picked up by the intelligence community from Day One.
I still have questions about the two Iranians who were on the plane, but again, that could be a side issue. The fact is nothing has come up indicating a terrorist nexus.
Going back to what is known, here is a full and updated timeline of all events that took place, by way of BBC:
The search operation is now concentrating on huge areas to the north and south of Malaysia, after locational 'pings' detected by a satellite appeared to indicate the plane was somewhere on an arc stretching either north up to to Central Asia, or south, to the Indian Ocean and Australia.
Evidence revealed on Saturday 15 March by the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak suggested the jet was deliberately diverted by someone on board about an hour after takeoff.
When was the last contact made?
Flight MH370 departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 00:41 on Saturday (16:41 GMT Friday), and was due to arrive in Beijing at 06:30 (22:30 GMT).
Malaysia Airlines says the plane lost contact less than an hour after takeoff.
No distress signal or message was sent.
The ACARS - a service that allows computers aboard the plane to "talk" to computers on the ground - was silenced some time after 01:07 as the plane crossed Malaysia's east coast.
At about 01:19 the co-pilot was heard to say: "All right, good night".
The plane's transponder, which communicates with ground radar, was shut down soon after this final communication, as the aircraft crossed from Malaysian air traffic control into Vietnamese airspace over the South China Sea.
At 01:37 the next ACARS transmission was due, but never sent.
What happened next?
The plane's planned route would have taken it north-eastwards, over Cambodia and Vietnam, and the initial search focused on the South China Sea, south of Vietnam's Ca Mau peninsula.
But evidence from a military radar, revealed later, suggested the plane had suddenly changed from its northerly course to head west. So the search, involving dozens of ships and planes, then switched to the sea west of Malaysia.
MH370's last communication with a satellite, disclosed a week after the plane's disappearance, suggested the jet was in one of two flight corridors, one stretching north between Thailand and Kazakhstan, the other south between Indonesia and the southern Indian Ocean.
The timing of the last confirmed communication with a satellite was 08:11 (00:11 GMT), meaning that the Boeing continued flying for nearly seven hours after contact with air traffic control was lost.
Investigators are making further calculations to establish how far the plane might have flown after the last point of contact.
Who was on board?
Muhammad Razahan Zamani (bottom right), 24, and his wife Norli Akmar Hamid, 33, were on their honeymoon on the missing flight. The phone is being held by his stepsister, Arni Marlina
The 12 crew members were all Malaysian, led by pilots Captain Zaharie Ahmed Shah, 53 and 27-year-old co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid.
Police have searched their homes and a flight simulator has been taken from the captain's home and reassembled for examination at police headquarters.
It is now believed that co-pilot Hamid spoke the last words heard from the plane, "All right, good night" - but it it not clear whether this was before or after the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) had been deliberately switched off.
There were 227 passengers, including 153 Chinese and 38 Malaysians, according to the manifest. Seven were children.
Other passengers came from Iran, the US, Canada, Indonesia, Australia, India, France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands.
Among the Chinese nationals were a delegation of 19 prominent artists who had attended an exhibition in Kuala Lumpur.
With so many of their nationals aboard, the Chinese Government has been very involved in the search, expressing barely-concealed frustration with the lack of progress.
Malaysia Airlines said there were four passengers who checked in for the flight but did not show up at the airport.
Malaysia plane: Who were the passengers?
Could it have been a terrorist attack?
The plane was deliberately diverted, the Malaysian PM told a news conference
The aircraft's change of direction was consistent with "deliberate action on the plane", the Malaysian authorities said.
But it remains unclear whether the course change was carried out by the air crew or flight-trained hijackers onboard.
So far no known or credible terror group has emerged to claim responsibility.
Initial investigations concentrated on two passengers found to be travelling on stolen passports.
The two Iranian men - 19-year-old Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad and Delavar Seyed Mohammadreza, 29 - were later found to headed for Europe via Beijing, and had no apparent links to terrorist groups.
Other theories for a crash
A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER taking off from Narita Airport near Tokyo, Japan, last year
Some initial theories suggested that the aircraft could have suffered a disastrous mid-air decompression, but Malaysian authorities say they are now almost entirely focused on the actions of the crew.
Captain Zaharie Ahmed Shah, who had more than 18,000 flying hours behind him, had been employed by the airline since 1981.
Weather conditions for this flight were good.
Malaysia Airlines has a good safety record and the jet, a Boeing 777-200ER, is said to be one of the safest because of its modern technology.
* * *
Finally, for those who still have lingering questions, here also from the BBC, is a compendium of 10 theories attempting to explain the fate of the missing airliner.
*1. Landed in the Andaman Islands*
The plane was apparently at one stage heading in the direction of India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the most easterly part of Indian territory, which lies between Indonesia and the coast of Thailand and Burma. It has been reported that military radar there might not even have been operating, as the threat level is generally perceived to be low.
The editor of the islands' Andaman Chronicle newspaper dismisses the notion that the aircraft could be there. There are four airstrips but planes landing would be spotted, he told CNN. He also believed monitoring by the Indian military would prevent an airliner being able to land there unnoticed. But this is an isolated spot. There are more than 570 islands, only 36 of which are inhabited. If the plane had been stolen, this might be the best place to land it secretly, says Steve Buzdygan, a former BA 777 pilot. It would be difficult, but not impossible, to land on the beach, he says. At least 5,000ft (1500m) or so would make a long enough strip to land on.
It would be theoretically possible but extremely difficult. With such a heavy aeroplane, using the landing gear might lead to the wheels digging into the sand and sections of undercarriage being ripped off. "If I was landing on a beach I would keep the wheels up," says Buzdygan. But in this type of crash landing, the danger would also be damage to the wings, which are full of fuel, causing an explosion. Even if landed safely, it is unlikely the plane would be able to take off again.
*2. Flew to Kazakhstan*
The Central Asian republic is at the far end of the northern search corridor, so the plane could hypothetically have landed there. Light aircraft pilot Sylvia Wrigley, author of Why Planes Crash, says landing in a desert might be possible and certainly more likely than landing on a beach somewhere. "To pull this off, you are looking at landing in an incredibly isolated area," says Wrigley. The failure so far to release a cargo manifest has created wild rumours about a valuable load that could be a motive for hijacking. There has also been speculation that some of those on board were billionaires.
But the plane would have been detected, the Kazakh Civil Aviation Committee said in a detailed statement sent to Reuters. And there's an even more obvious problem. The plane would have had to cross the airspace of countries like India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are all usually in a high state of military preparedness. But it's just possible that there are weak links in the radar systems of some of the countries en route to Central Asia, Wrigley speculates. "A lot of air traffic control gear is old. They might be used to getting false positives from flocks of birds and, therefore, it would be easy to discount it."
* 3. It flew south*
The final satellite "ping" suggests the plane was still operational for at least five or six hours after leaving Malaysian radar range. For Norman Shanks, former head of group security at airports group BAA, and professor of aviation security at Coventry University, the search should therefore start from the extremes of the corridors and work up, rather than the other way around. He thinks the southern corridor is more likely for a plane that has so far avoided detection by radar.
The southern arc leads to the huge open spaces of the Indian Ocean, and then to Australia's empty northern hinterland. Without knowing the motive, it is hard to speculate where the plane's final destination was intended to be. But the plane may just have carried on until it ran out of fuel and then glided and crashed into the sea somewhere north of Australia.
*4. Taklamakan Desert, north-west China*
There has been speculation on forums that the plane could have been commandeered by China's Uighur Muslim separatists. Out of the plane's 239 passengers, 153 were Chinese citizens. One possible destination in this theory would be China's Taklamakan Desert. The region - described by Encyclopaedia Britannica as a "great desert of Central Asia and one of the largest sandy deserts in the world" - has no shortage of space far from prying eyes. The BBC's Jonah Fisher tweeted on 15 March: "Being briefed by Malaysia officials they believe most likely location for MH370 is on land somewhere near Chinese/Kyrgyz border."
But again, this theory rests on an extraordinary run through the radar systems of several countries.
*5. It was flown towards Langkawi island because of a fire or other malfunction*
The loss of transponders and communications could be explained by a fire, aviation blogger Chris Goodfellow has suggested. The left turn that the plane made, deviating from the route to Beijing, could have been a bid to reach safety, he argues. "This pilot did all the right things. He was confronted by some major event onboard that made him make that immediate turn back to the closest safe airport." He aimed to avoid crashing into a city or high ridges, Goodfellow argues. "Actually he was taking a direct route to Palau Langkawi, a 13,000ft (4,000m) strip with an approach over water at night with no obstacles. He did not turn back to Kuala Lumpur because he knew he had 8,000ft ridges to cross. He knew the terrain was friendlier towards Langkawi and also a shorter distance." In this theory it would be assumed that the airliner did not make it to Langkawi and crashed into the sea.
But Goodfellow's theory has been disputed. If the course was changed during a major emergency, one might expect it to be done using manual control. But the left turn was the result of someone in the cockpit typing "seven or eight keystrokes into a computer on a knee-high pedestal between the captain and the first officer, according to officials", the New York Times reported. The paper says this "has reinforced the belief of investigators - first voiced by Malaysian officials - that the plane was deliberately diverted and that foul play was involved."
*6. The plane is in Pakistan*
Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has tweeted: "World seems transfixed by 777 disappearance. Maybe no crash but stolen, effectively hidden, perhaps in northern Pakistan, like Bin Laden." But Pakistan has strenuously denied that this would be possible. The country's assistant to the prime minister on aviation, Shujaat Azeem, has been reported as saying: "Pakistan's civil aviation radars never spotted this jet, so how it could be hidden somewhere in Pakistan?" Like the Kazakhstan theory, this all seems far-fetched, not least because the junction between Indian and Pakistani air space is one of the most watched sectors in the world by military radar. And despite the remoteness and lawlessness of northern Pakistan, the region is watched closely by satellites and drones. It seems scarcely believable to think an airliner could get there unspotted.
*7. The plane hid in the shadow of another airliner*
Aviation blogger Keith Ledgerwood believes the missing plane hid in the radar shadow of Singapore Airlines flight 68. The Singaporean airliner was in the same vicinity as the Malaysian plane, he argues. "It became apparent as I inspected SIA68's flight path history that MH370 had manoeuvred itself directly behind SIA68 at approximately 18:00UTC and over the next 15 minutes had been following SIA68." He believes that the Singaporean airliner would have disguised the missing plane from radar controllers on the ground. "It is my belief that MH370 likely flew in the shadow of SIA68 through India and Afghanistan airspace. As MH370 was flying 'dark' without a transponder, SIA68 would have had no knowledge that MH370 was anywhere around, and as it entered Indian airspace, it would have shown up as one single blip on the radar with only the transponder information of SIA68 lighting up ATC and military radar screens." The Singapore Airlines plane flew on to Spain. The Malaysian jet could have branched off. "There are several locations along the flight path of SIA68 where it could have easily broken contact and flown and landed in Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, or Turkmenistan," Ledgerwood argues.
Prof Hugh Griffiths, radar expert at University College London, says it sounds feasible. But there is a difference between military and civilian radar. Civilian radar works by means of a transponder carried by the aircraft - a system known as secondary radar. The military use primary radar and this "ought to be higher resolution". So how close would the two planes need to be? He estimates about 1000m (3300ft). It is possible military radar would be able to pick up that there were two objects, he says. "It might be able to tell the difference, to know that there are two targets." If this happens, though, there's then the question of how this is interpreted on the ground. Is it a strange echo that would be discounted? When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, although the US radar operator detected the incoming aircraft, they were dismissed as US bombers arriving from the mainland.
* 8. There was a struggle *
One of the hardest things to account for so far with an innocent explanation is the way the plane was flown erratically. It went far above its "ceiling", flying at 45,000ft (13,716m) before later flying very low. Big fluctuations in altitude suggest there might have been a struggle, says Buzdygan. Post-9/11, cockpit doors have been strengthened against the possibility of hijack but there are still scenarios where access could be gained. Pilots talk to each other "over a beer" about how they'd deal with hijackers, he says. Buzdygan would have had no qualms about flying aggressively to try to resist a hijack. "I'd try to disorientate and confuse the hijackers by throwing them around," he says.
*9. The passengers were deliberately killed by decompression*
Another theory circulating is that the plane was taken up to 45,000ft to kill the passengers quickly, former RAF navigator Sean Maffett says. The supposed motive for this might have been primarily to stop the passengers using mobile phones, once the plane descended to a much lower altitude. At 45,000ft, the Boeing 777 is way above its normal operating height. And it is possible to depressurise the cabin, notes Maffett. Oxygen masks would automatically deploy. They would run out after 12-15 minutes. The passengers - as with carbon monoxide poisoning - would slip into unconsciousness and die, he argues. But whoever was in control of the plane would also perish in this scenario, unless they had access to some other form of oxygen supply.
* 10. The plane will take off again to be used in a terrorist attack *
One of the more outlandish theories is that the plane has been stolen by terrorists to commit a 9/11 style atrocity. It has been landed safely, hidden or camouflaged, will be refuelled and fitted with a new transponder before taking off to attack a city. It would be very hard to land a plane, hide it and then take off again, Maffett suggested. But it can't be ruled out. "We are now at stage where very, very difficult things have to be considered as all sensible options seem to have dropped off," he says. It is not clear even whether a plane could be refitted with a new transponder and given a totally new identity in this way, he says. Others would say that while it is just about feasible the plane could be landed in secret, it is unlikely it would be in a fit state to take off again.
*The even more far-fetched*
Many of the above theories might seem far-fetched but there are even more outlandish-sounding ones out there.
If the plane had flown up the northern corridor, experts maintain it would probably have triggered primary radar. Key countries whose airspace it might have crossed are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, or Thailand. After 9/11, an unidentified airliner entering sovereign airspace is likely to lead to fighters being scrambled, says Maffett. "If the plane is in the northern arc it could easily have been shot down." It's a theory circulating on some forums. The notion is that no-one would want to admit shooting down an airliner full of passengers, Maffett says, and thus might currently be concealing the event.
But there are a host of holes in the theory. Firstly, the plane would still have had to avoid numerous radar systems before finally triggering one. And the nation responsible would be trying to keep secret the fate of the world's currently most-searched for object. Covering up the incident for so long would arguably make the shooting down look far worse.
A completely different thread of conspiracy theory assumes a sympathetic regime. The scepticism about flying undetected through radar changes somewhat if the hijackers are in cahoots with a country's government. There are several authoritarian regimes within the aircraft's range, but the conspiracy theory doesn't even require a government's co-operation - the hijackers could just be in cahoots with radar operators. Again, this seems to be a conspiracy of incredible complexity to be kept secret for this length of time. And what would the motive be for those colluding?
* * *
*Motive? We don't know. But then again, neither we nor anyone else appears to have seen the full cargo manifest yet, which as we said early last week may hold all the answers, and frankly we find it surprising that in a case of such magnitude this most critical unknown has been largely left untouched by everyone.*