• The Observer


Why did it take so long before anyone realized the plane was missing?

It didn’t. Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, has confirmed that the plane ceased communicating with ground control about 40 minutes into its flight to Beijing, but this information was not made public for many hours.

Malaysia has faced accusations of not sharing all of its information or suspicions about the plane’s final movements.

The disappearance of the Boeing 777 — one of the safest commercial jets in service — is one of the most baffling in aviation history.

Why did no one see the plane veering so far off course?

They did. Radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appeared to show the airliner climbing to 45,000 feet (13,700 meters), higher than a Boeing 777’s approved limit, soon after its disappearance from civilian radar, then making a sharp turn to the west.

The radar tracking then shows the plane descending unevenly to 23,000 feet (7,000 meters), below normal cruising levels, before climbing again and flying northwest toward the Indian Ocean.

What the military did with this information is not known.

Why this flight?

Here we enter the realm of wild speculation. The Internet is awash with theories. It could be that Malaysia was geographically convenient. Some suggest that, if it is a hijack, it is probably the work of Uighur separatists in Xinjiang, western China, or Islamic terrorists. On March 1, attackers armed with knives killed at least 29 people and injured more than 100 in Kunming railway station in southwestern China.

Hijacking a plane would be by far their most spectacular achievement. The plane had fuel to get as far north as Kazakhstan, according to some experts, which means it could have been flown to Pakistan or Afghanistan.

However, given that the jet was not detected by these two militarized countries, this seems unlikely.

Why are the pilots’ homes being searched only now?

This does raise questions about Malaysia’s handling of the situation. The lengthy delay appears to bolster criticism that Malaysia has been ineffective in this crisis. Numerous false sightings of wreckage may have convinced the authorities that they were dealing with a disaster, not terrorism, which could explain why they did not immediately search the men’s homes.

Why did Vietnam not raise the alarm?

Once an aircraft is more than 150 miles (240 km) out to sea, radar coverage fades and crews keep in touch with air traffic control and other aircraft by high-frequency radio. About 40 minutes in, the flight was still the “property” of Malaysian air traffic control, which we know made contact with the plane just minutes before it disappeared. All seemed fine as the pilot reported “All right, good night.”

This last verbal communication came at the boundary between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace. Malaysian air traffic control told the pilots the flight was being passed to Ho Chi Minh control. The Vietnamese authorities may never have assumed responsibility for the plane, as it never entered their airspace. This would be consistent with where the search has now moved to.

How do investigators know the communications systems were shut off and did not just go wrong?

This is based on information from the Malaysian authorities who, admittedly, have given contradictory reports. The prime minister, Najib Razak, said investigators now had a “high degree of certainty” that one of the plane’s communications systems, the aircraft and communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS), was disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia. Shortly afterward, someone on board switched off the aircraft’s transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic control.

How do we know the plane flew on after the transponder was switched off?

Routine, automated signals from the aircraft — known as electronic handshakes, or pings — registered on the Inmarsat satellite network. MH370’s last ping suggested it was in one of two flight corridors: either between Thailand and Kazakhstan, or between Indonesia and the southern Indian Ocean.

The last confirmed communication was made at 8:11 a.m., which would indicate that the Boeing continued flying for nearly seven hours after contact was lost. As a result, its location will be very difficult to pinpoint quickly.

Without further radar and satellite evidence or eyewitness testimony, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

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