Odds Of Finding MAS Flight 370 Lengthen as Search Widens

AIN Air Transport Perspective » March 17, 2014
The final satellite "ping" from Flight 370 places the airplane somewhere along two "corridors" at 8:11 a.m. on March 8.
March 17, 2014, 11:18 AM

Now 10 days after the transponder from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 stopped transmitting over the South China Sea, the search for the missing Boeing 777 has expanded to involve 25 countries and cover an area spanning a million square miles. The expansion of the search came in reaction to evidence that the airplane’s satcom system continued to transmit for several hours after Malaysian military radar lost contact with the airplane some 200 miles northwest of the island of Panang off the Western coast of the Malay peninsula. During a Saturday press conference, Malaysian officials finally identified the object military radar had detected at points across peninsular Malaysia into the northern part of the Strait of Malacca as an object that “could have been a 777.” Based on the satellite information, they also plotted two separate “corridors” from where the satcom system sent its last “ping” at 8:11 a.m., one extending north from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the other extending from Indonesia south into the far reaches of the southern Indian Ocean.

Over the weekend Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said investigators believe that the airplane’s Acars stopped operating before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia, less than 45 minutes after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on its way to Beijing. As the airplane, carrying 239 people, approached the midpoint between the Malaysian east coast and southern Vietnam over the Gulf of Thailand, someone turned off the aircraft’s transponder, they said, presumably to prevent detection by civilian radar.

While the disappearance of Flight 370 has sent search assets from the South China Sea to the Strait of Malacca and north into the Bay of Bengal, investigators have begun turning more attention toward the so-called southern corridor into the southern Indian Ocean, where Australian teams have taken a lead role in scouring the area. Meanwhile, Malaysia has sent diplomatic cables to all countries in the search area asking for radar data that might help offer more clues about the airplane’s location.

A source familiar with the investigation and the Malaysian military complex suggested to AIN that political considerations could further hinder the search effort, given the sensitivity of information about satellite capabilities or deficiencies. In fact, he said, one might attribute the seemingly ambiguous information released by the Malaysians during the first few days following the airplane’s disappearance to their embarrassment over their failure to immediately recognize the object tracked by primary military radar as a potential security threat.

The source also suggested the world’s best hope for finding the airplane rests with U.S. military satellite capability. The extent to which the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) can help, however, might also depend on national security considerations. “U.S. satellite capability, both electro-optical imaging and radar imaging, are the highest resolution and could potentially provide the wide-area coverage that is required in this situation,” he said. “The NRO has capabilities that they may or may not care to bring to bear. And if they do they have to be very cautious in they way that they—the U.S. government—release the information.”

In Malaysia, authorities have seized a flight simulator installed in the home of Flight 370’s captain in an effort to determine whether he might have planned ahead of time for a diversion from the flight plan to Beijing. Authorities have also begun investigating the backgrounds of the rest of the flight crew and all the passengers.

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