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Jet search expands north, south; mystery persists

A personnel of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue checks the map during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN)

KUALA LUMPUR: The search for the missing Malaysian jet pushed deep into the northern and southern hemispheres Monday as Australia scoured the southern Indian Ocean and China offered 21 satellites to respond to Malaysia’s call for help in the unprecedented hunt.

French investigators arriving in Kuala Lumpur to lend expertise from the two-year search for an Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 said they were able to rely on distress signals. But that vital tool is missing in the Malaysia Airlines mystery because flight 370’s communications were deliberately severed ahead of its disappearance more than a week ago.

“It’s very different from the Air France case. The Malaysian situation is much more difficult,” said Jean Paul Troadec, a special adviser to France’s aviation accident investigation bureau.

Malaysian authorities say the jet carrying 239 people was intentionally diverted from its flight path during an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 and flew off-course for several hours. Suspicion has fallen on the pilots, although Malaysian officials have said they are looking into everyone aboard the flight.

Malaysian police confiscated a flight simulator from the pilot’s home Saturday and also visited the home of the co-pilot in what Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar initially said was the first police visits to those homes. But the government – which has come under criticism abroad for missteps and foot-dragging in their release of information – issued a statement Monday contradicting that account by saying police first visited the pilots’ homes as early as March 9, the day after the flight.

Investigators haven’t ruled out hijacking, sabotage, pilot suicide or mass murder, and they are checking the backgrounds of all 227 passengers and 12 crew members, as well as the ground crew, to see if links to terrorists, personal problems or psychological issues could be factors.

For now, though, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said finding the plane was still the main focus, and he did not rule out finding it intact.

“The fact that there was no distress signal, no ransom notes, no parties claiming responsibility, there is always hope,” Hussein said at a news conference.

Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said an initial investigation indicated that the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul-Hamid, spoke the flight’s last words – “All right, good night” – to ground controllers. Had it been a voice other than that of Fariq or the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, it would have been the clearest indication yet of something amiss in the cockpit before the flight went off-course.

Malaysian officials earlier said those words came after one of the jetliner’s data communications systems – the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System – had been switched off, sharpening suspicion that one or both of the pilots may have been involved in the plane’s disappearance.

However, Ahmad said Monday that while the last data transmission from ACARS – which gives plane performance and maintenance information – came before that, it was still unclear at what point the system was switched off. That opened the possibility that both ACARS and the plane’s transponders – which make the plane visible to civilian air traffic controllers – were severed later and at about the same time. It also suggests that the all-clear message delivered from the cockpit could have preceded any of the severed communications.

Although Malaysian authorities requested that all nations with citizens aboard the flight conduct background checks on them, it wasn’t clear how thoroughly they were conducting such checks at home. The father of a Malaysian aviation engineer aboard the plane, Mohammad Khairul Amri Selamat, 29, said police had not approached anyone in the family about his son, though he added that there was no reason to suspect him. “It is impossible for him to be involved in something like this,” said the father, Selamat Omar, 60. “He is a good boy ... We are keeping our hopes high. I am praying hard that the plane didn’t crash and that he will be back soon.”

Malaysia’s government in the meantime sent out diplomatic cables to all countries in the search area, seeking more planes and ships for the search, as well as to ask for any radar data that might help narrow the task.

Some 26 countries are involved in the search, which initially focused on seas on either side of peninsular Malaysia, in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.

Hussein said Monday that searches in both the northern and southern stretches of the arc had begun, and that countries from Australia up north to China and west to Kazakhstan had joined the hunt.

Had the plane gone northwest to Central Asia, it would have crossed over countries with busy airspace, and some experts believe it more likely would have gone south, although Malaysian authorities are not ruling out the northern corridor and are eager for radar data that might confirm or rule out that path.

The northern corridor crosses through countries including China, India and Pakistan – all of which have said they have seen no sign of the plane. China, where two thirds of the passengers were from, is providing several planes and 21 satellites for the search, Premier Li Keqiang said in a statement.

To the south, Indonesia focused on Indian Ocean waters west of Sumatra, air force spokesman Rear Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto said.

Planes will be searching for any signs of the kind of debris that might float to the surface in a crash. Ahmad, the Malaysia Airlines CEO, said the plane had no unusual cargo, though he said it was carrying several tons of mangosteens, a tropical fruit.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 18, 2014, on page 11.

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Summary

The search for the missing Malaysian jet pushed deep into the northern and southern hemispheres Monday as Australia scoured the southern Indian Ocean and China offered 21 satellites to respond to Malaysia's call for help in the unprecedented hunt.

Malaysian authorities say the jet carrying 239 people was intentionally diverted from its flight path during an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 and flew off-course for several hours. Suspicion has fallen on the pilots, although Malaysian officials have said they are looking into everyone aboard the flight.

For now, though, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said finding the plane was still the main focus, and he did not rule out finding it intact.

Malaysia's government in the meantime sent out diplomatic cables to all countries in the search area, seeking more planes and ships for the search, as well as to ask for any radar data that might help narrow the task.

Had the plane gone northwest to Central Asia, it would have crossed over countries with busy airspace, and some experts believe it more likely would have gone south, although Malaysian authorities are not ruling out the northern corridor and are eager for radar data that might confirm or rule out that path.


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