LONDON/KUALA LUMPUR/BEIJING – The sudden disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner with 239 people aboard represents one of the rarest kinds of aviation disaster, and the mystery is compounded by uncertainty about which country’s jurisdiction the plane came down in.
Takeoff and, in particular, final approach and landing are the most inherently hazardous parts of a flight, and the periods when most accidents occur.
Saturday’s red-eye flight, by contrast, vanished at cruising altitude in clear skies en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. No distress signal appears to have been sent, no wreckage has been found and no aircraft malfunction has been identified.
But it has been more than 24 hours since the plane went missing and Malaysia Airlines said it was “fearing the worst.”
If the loss of the aircraft is confirmed, it would be the worst global air disaster since 2001.
Military radar indicates that the missing Boeing 777 jet may have turned back before vanishing, Malaysia’s air force chief said Sunday, as authorities were investigating up to four passengers with suspicious identifications.
The revelations add to the uncertainties surrounding the final minutes of flight MH370, which lost contact with ground controllers somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam after leaving Kuala Lumpur early Saturday morning for Beijing.
A massive international sea search has so far turned up no trace of the plane, which lost contact with the ground when the weather was fine, the plane was already cruising and the pilots didn’t send a distress signal — unusual circumstances for a modern jetliner operated by a professional airline to crash.
Vietnamese air force jets spotted two large oil slicks Saturday, but it was unclear if they were linked to the missing plane, and no debris was found nearby. Air force chief Rodzali Daud didn’t say which direction the plane might have taken or how long for when it apparently went off route.
Authorities were checking on the suspect identities of at least two passengers who appear to have boarded with stolen passports. On Saturday, the foreign ministries in Italy and Austria said the names of two citizens listed on the flight’s manifest matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand.
This, and the sudden disappearance of the plane that experts say is consistent with a possible onboard explosion, strengthened existing concerns about terrorism as a possible cause for the disappearance. Al-Qaida militants have used similar tactics to try and disguise their identities.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that authorities were looking at two more possible cases of suspicious identities. He said Malaysian intelligence agencies were in contact with their international counterparts, including the FBI. He gave no more details.
“Aircraft do not crash while en route like this,” said Paul Hayes, Director of Safety at Flightglobal Ascend, a British-based aviation consultancy. “It is an extremely unusual event.”
Only one other recent disaster was similar: the loss of Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
The incident is likely to rekindle a debate about whether black box flight recorders should be replaced with satellite-based systems capable of sending back telemetry in real time. Such systems exist, but have so far been ruled out on the basis of cost and logistics.
In the meantime, it is unclear who will take the lead in unraveling what happened to the Malaysian airliner.
Under International Civil Aviation Organization rules, the government of the territory where the crash occurred typically has jurisdiction over the wreckage and leads the investigation. So it is likely no authority can take charge until the wreckage is found.
In this case, it is likely to be Vietnam. But if the plane went down in international waters, then Malaysia would have control, and the United States would be involved because the plane was U.S.-built.
The lead investigator could ask the United States or another country with deep investigative abilities to take a larger role. But release of information and findings about the crash would likely remain under the control of the lead investigator nation.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared about an hour into a scheduled flight to Beijing, with theories ranging from a sudden stall, an incident on board which caused a complete electrical failure to some kind of freak accident.
The 11-year-old Boeing took off at 12.40 a.m. from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and was last heard from at 1:30 a.m., according to the airline.
The plane last had contact with air traffic controllers 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu. Flight tracking website flightaware.com showed the plane flew northeast over Malaysia after take-off and climbed to an altitude of 35,000 feet.
Pilots and aviation experts said an explosion on board appeared to be the likely cause of the disaster. The plane was at cruising altitude, the safest phase of flight, and likely would have been on autopilot.
“It was either an explosion, lightning strike or severe decompression,” said a former Malaysia Airlines pilot. “The 777 can fly after a lightning strike and even severe decompression. But with an explosion, there is no chance. It is over.”
An extreme, sudden loss of cabin pressure could have caused an explosive decompression and broken the plane apart, said John Goglia, a former board member of the National Transportation Safety Board. Such a decompression can be caused by corrosion or metal fatigue in the airframe.
The disaster is most similar to the mysterious disappearance of Air France Flight 447, which killed all 228 people on board. Investigations were unable to conclusively come up with a reason for the crash of the Airbus A330 until the plane’s black boxes — its flight and voice data recorders — were recovered from the bottom of the ocean two years later.
That recovery is likely to help investigators of the Malaysia Airlines crash.