The dramatic expansion of the search for a missing Malaysian airliner suggests the plane flew thousands of miles off course, crossing – apparently undetected – a sensitive region bristling with military radar.
Aviation experts on Friday queried the plausibility of such a scenario, but confirmation from US and Malaysian officials that the search was being widened into the vast Indian Ocean suggested it had credible underpinnings.
If there was debate over what might have happened to Flight MH370, there was a general consensus as to the extraordinary nature of its disappearance without trace a week ago over the South China Sea.
“I would probably go ahead and say this is unprecedented,” said Anthony Brickhouse, a member of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators.
“In most investigations each day you move forward, you uncover more things, more clues,” Brickhouse told AFP.
“But in this one it seems that each day that goes by something that you thought was a lead turns out not to be a lead and you’re back to square one again.”
The expansion of the search area came as multiple US media reports, citing American officials, said the plane’s communication system continued to “ping” a satellite for up to four hours after it disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The reports amplified on Malaysia’s belief, based on a radar sighting, that the plane may have mysteriously turned back towards Kuala Lumpur just over an hour into its flight when no technical problem was apparent, on a calm night in fine weather.
But Neil Hansford, chairman of leading Australian airline consultancy Strategic Aviation Solutions, balked at the idea of the plane flying on for undetected more than four hours through various national airspaces.
“An aircraft, without any transponders on, going over the top of anybody’s airspace would have become a military incident and somebody would have done something,” Hansford said.
Southeast Asia, and particularly the South China Sea, is a hotbed of bitter territorial disputes that are the subject of round-the clock surveillance by the competing parties.
Flying from the point where radar contact was lost to the Indian Ocean would have taken the plane through airspace monitored by Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian military radar.
“How did it get past all of that?” said Gerry Soejatman, an independent aviation analyst based in Jakarta.
One possibility is that the radar systems did pick something up, but it was unclear, and there was a reluctance to flag up data that would also reveal details about military radar capabilities.
“Defence is not only about having the capability but also not disclosing what capabilities you don’t have,” said David Kaminski-Morrow, the London-based air transport editor for Flight International.
“I am sure there is a lot of discussion in the back rooms on what information you want to put out there to help search for the aircraft, and what you don’t want out in the public domain,” he said.
Neither the US Navy nor White House has detailed the source of the intelligence that led to the redeployment of the destroyer USS Kidd towards the Indian Ocean.
But Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters that his government was “sharing information we don’t normally share for security reasons.”
The confounding mystery has fuelled a host of contending scenarios, including a mid-air explosion, terrorist act, catastrophic technical failure, pilot suicide or rogue missile strike.
The idea that it flew for hours, and thousands of miles, over the Indian Ocean would appear to lend credence to the notion of some sort of cockpit takeover.
The theory has gathered further weight from other unconfirmed reports that the plane’s two main automated communication systems shut down 14 minutes apart – suggesting this was done manually rather than caused by an explosion or other sudden catastrophic event.
But Soejatman said the time lag could have been the result of a fire.
“We have seen cases where there have been cockpit fires, and then the systems go down one by one,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be deliberate.”
Several analysts noted that speculation was being fuelled by the public’s widespread disbelief that a modern passenger plane carrying 239 people could just vanish – in an age of instant communication where smartphones have brought advanced technology into everyone’s pockets.
Although it has been almost a week, Paul Yap, an aviation lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore, argued that the search was “still in its very early days” and that expectations had to be re-calibrated.
“The unusual problem and maybe the most important one in this case is that there is nothing that can tell them exactly how to deploy their resources,” he said.
“I know that is frustrating to hear … especially for the families, but right now that is the reality.” – AFP