Malaysia

Plane fine, pilots good, so where is MH370?

More than 80 hours after it vanished from thin air, Malaysia Airlines said that the B777-200ER operating flight MH370 breezed through checks 15 days earlier – compounding the mystery over its fate.

The Malaysian flag carrier had earlier said both pilots were experienced to fly the aircraft, Boeing Co's best-selling wide-body plane, and remain stumped over its whereabouts.

The search for the plane carrying 239 people onboard has expanded as far as Sumatra on the west coast of the Malay peninsula and Hong Kong on the far reaches of the South China Sea but more than 40 ships and as many aircraft have yet to find any trace of the lost passenger jet.

Why is it taking so long to find the aircraft that was last seen crossing the Gulf of Thailand towards Beijing early Saturday morning?

In a special report, the Christian Science Monitor compared the search for MH370 with that of Air France flight 447.

In both cases, there was no "Mayday" or distress call from pilots. The planes just "disappeared" from the sky, the report said.

In the case of AF447, bad weather was a factor.

The Air France pilots didn't radio for help because they didn't realise, until it was too late, the severity of their problems.

And as some pilots have noted, they don't see a lack of communication as necessarily a sign of a terrorist bomb or the catastrophic failure of the aircraft.

"As one puts it, the priorities are 'aviate, navigate, and then communicate'," the report added. But all reports so far indicate that MH370 encountered no bad weather. Also for the missing AF447, good clues quickly emerged as to the aircraft's last location and what might have gone wrong.

"Brazilian air traffic control had recent contact with the Air France jet and the aircraft had sent a series of electronic messages over a three-minute period from an onboard monitoring system via the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS).

"Four days after the crash of AF447, the airline released a transcript of the ACARS data, which indicated that in the last four minutes of the aircraft's flight there were six failure reports and 19 warnings involving navigation, auto-flight, flight controls and cabin air-conditioning.

"The ACARS data gave early clues to what went wrong. Ultimately, among the causes of the crash were pilot errors in response to faulty readings from air-speed sensors," the Christian Science Monitor report said.

But it pointed out that it was not clear whether the Malaysia Airways Boeing 777 was equipped with ACARS. Flightglobal reportedly asked Malaysia Airlines about signals from the B777’s ACARS, but the carrier declined to comment citing “pending investigations” by Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation.

However, Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters last night the aircraft (registration number 9M-MRO) had ACARS.

If authorities had ACARS data telling them what went wrong with the Malaysia Airways flight, that might give them a better idea of where to look, said the report.

The last reported position of flight MH370 – and last radar contact – was over an area of sea between Malaysia and Vietnam. The aircraft disappeared about an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.

As of today, no debris had been found, and authorities said they were widening the search area. "But a map of the widened search area is now raising new questions about how much Malaysian officials know about the missing aircraft's last position.

"The search area map now includes not only a wider area around the last publicly reported position of the aircraft, but also a new area in the Strait of Malacca, on the west side of Malaysia's peninsula.

"That raises new questions about how much authorities know – but aren't telling the public," Christian Science Monitor said in the report, noting the Malaysian authorities have said military radar recordings had revealed the possibility that the aircraft had turned back from its scheduled flight path.

But, as Ahmad Jauhari said, that would be highly unusual and under normal circumstances, the pilot would have called Malaysia air traffic control to signal a change in the original flight path.

"If the aircraft had turned back toward Malaysia, and flown over it, that might explain why the search area now includes both the Gulf of Thailand and the Strait of Malacca.

It wouldn't explain why an aircraft would overfly land, and possibly airports, without landing or radioing its position or its transponder giving away its position.

"Normally, an aircraft transponder would enable air traffic controllers to locate its position. Assuming, of course, the transponder was still functioning and hadn't been turned off," the Christian Science Monitor report said.

But this new search zone, and the lack of any debris found in the original search area, has commentators on global aviation sites speculating (in the absence of new facts) that flight MH370 was hijacked or taken on a suicide mission by one of its pilots.

"Looking on the other side of the peninsula is just odd, it means they (Malaysia authorities) saw the airplane go over the peninsula on radar, or there are parts of the peninsula that lack radar coverage," writes Web500sjc, who's listed on Airliners.net as a commercial flight instructor in the US.

As another commenter said, if the engines had died on a Boeing 777 at 10,700m, the glide slope would indicate that it could be about 160km from the last known location.

The Strait of Malacca is more than 400km away.

Of course, Malaysian officials may simply be as confounded as everyone else.

Experts said the wreckage could be sitting in water as shallow as 91m or as deep as 910m or more, where the ocean is pitch-black and the temperature is as low as 4.5 degrees Celsius, the LA Times reported today. GPS signals are not effective in salt water and acoustic signals sent from the plane's emergency beacon could be faint, experts told the newspaper.

"Shallow doesn't necessarily mean easy," said David Gallo, who managed search expeditions for Air France Flight 447 that crashed in 2009.

"I can tell you, having been out there... on a number of occasions, that the ocean becomes a big place when you're looking for an aircraft," he was quoted as saying by the LA Times.

The last known point of radar contact with the Boeing 777 was midway between Malaysia's east coast and the southern tip of Vietnam. Search crews from 10 countries are scouring 10,500 square miles, including the Gulf of Thailand and its currents.

The first step involves sending crews to a likely impact point, where they lower listening devices into the ocean and attempt to pick up the signals from a device called a "pinger" attached to the plane's two black boxes, said the paper, adding that battery life of the devices was about 30 days.

Gallo, director of special operations at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, said the device was not likely to work as well in shallow water where noise from ships could drown it out.

Search crews are probably "ploughing" the ocean floor with sonar, he said, and having that many people involved in the hunt could lead to confusion.

"A search is like a symphony," he said. "You need all the members on the team to play the right notes at the same time." – March 11, 2014.

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