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Planning could hold key to disappearance of Flight MH370

(Reuters) - Whether by accident or design, whoever reached across the dimly lit cockpit of a Malaysia Airlines jet and clicked off a transponder to make Flight MH370 vanish from controllers' radars flew into a navigational and technical black hole.

By choosing one place and time to vanish into radar darkness with 238 others on board, the person - presumed to be a pilot or a passenger with advanced knowledge - may have acted only after meticulous planning, according to aviation experts.

Understanding the sequence that led to the unprecedented plane hunt widening across two vast tracts of territory north and south of the Equator is key to grasping the motives of what Malaysian authorities suspect was hijacking or sabotage.

By signing off from Malaysian airspace at 1.19 a.m. on March 8 with a casual "all right, good night," rather than the crisp radio drill advocated in pilot training, a person now believed to be the co-pilot gave no hint of anything unusual.

Two minutes later, at 1.21 a.m. local time, the transponder - a device identifying jets to ground controllers - was turned off in a move that experts say could reveal a careful sequence.

"Every action taken by the person who was piloting the aircraft appears to be a deliberate one. It is almost like a pilot's checklist," said one senior captain from an Asian carrier with experience of jets including the Boeing 777.

There is so far no indication whether the co-pilot was at fault or had anything to do with turning off the transponder. Pilots say the usual industry convention is that the pilot not directly responsible for flying the plane talks on the radio.

Police have searched the premises of both the captain and co-pilot and are checking the backgrounds of all passengers.

Whoever turned the transponder to "off", whether or not the move was deliberate, did so at a vulnerable point between two airspace sectors when Malaysian and Vietnamese controllers could easily assume the airplane was each others' responsibility.

"The predictable effect was to delay the raising of the alarm by either party," David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flight International, wrote in an industry blog.

That mirrors delays in noticing something was wrong when an Air France jet disappeared over the Atlantic in 2009 with 228 people on board, a gap blamed on confusion between controllers.

Yet whereas the Rio-Paris disaster was later traced to pilot error, the suspected kidnapping of MH370's passengers and crew was carried out with either skill or bizarre coincidences.

Whether or not pilots knew it, the jet was just then in a technically obscure sweet spot, according to a top radar expert.

Air traffic controllers use secondary radar which works by talking to the transponder. Some air traffic control systems also blend in some primary radar, which uses a simple echo.

But primary radar signals fade faster than secondary ones, meaning even a residual blip would have vanished for controllers and even military radar may have found it difficult to identify the 777 from other ghostly blips, said radar expert Hans Weber.

"Turning off the transponder indicates this person was highly trained," said Weber, of consultancy TECOP International.


The overnight flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur is packed year-round with business people, Chinese tourists and students, attracted in part by code-sharing deals, regular travelers say.

The lockdown of MH370 may have begun as early as 40 minutes into the flight at a point when meals are being hurriedly served in time to get trays cleared and lights dimmed for the night.

"It was a red-eye flight. Most people - the passengers and the crew - just want to rest," a Malaysia Airlines stewardess said. "Unless there was a reason to panic, if someone had taken control of the aircraft, they would not have noticed anything."

At some point between 1.07 a.m. and 1.37 a.m., investigators believe someone switched off another system called ACARS designed to transmit maintenance data back to the ground.

While unusual, this may not necessarily raise alarms at the airline and the passengers would not have known that something was amiss, said some of the six pilots contacted by Reuters, none of whom agreed to be identified because of company rules.

"Occasionally, there are gaps in the communications systems and the guys in ground operations may not think much of it initially. It would be a while before they try to find out what was wrong," said one captain with an Asian carrier.

Cutting the datalink would not have been easy. Instructions are not in the Flight Crew Operating Manual, one pilot said.

Whoever did so may have had to climb through a trap door in full view of cabin crew, people familiar with the jet say.

Circuit-breakers used to disable the system are in a bay reached through a hatch in the floor next to the lefthand front exit, close to a galley used to prepare meals.

Most pilots said it would be impossible to turn off ACARS from inside the cockpit, though two people did not rule it out.

Malaysia Airlines said 14 minutes elapsed between the last ACARS message and the transponder shutdown that - in the growing view of officials - confirmed a fully loaded jet was on the run. The ACARS must have been disabled within 16 minutes after that.

In the meantime a voice believed to be that of the co-pilot issued the last words from MH370 and the transponder went dead.


The northeast-bound jet now took a northwestern route from Kota Bahru in eastern Malaysia to Penang Island. It was last detected on military radar around 200 miles northwest of Penang.

Even that act of going off course may not have caused alarm at first if it was handled gradually, pilots said.

"Nobody pays attention to these things unless they are aware of the direction that the aircraft was heading in," said one first officer who has flown with Malaysia Airlines.

The airline said it had reconstructed the event in a simulator to try to figure out how the jet vanished and kept flying for what may have been more than seven hours.

Pilots say whoever was then in control may have kept the radio on in silent mode to hear what was going on around him, but would have avoided restarting the transponder at all costs.

"That would immediately make the aircraft visible ... like a bright light. Your registration, height, altitude and speed would all become visible," said an airline captain.

After casting off its identity, the aircraft set investigators a puzzle that has yet to be solved. It veered either northwards or southwards, within an hour's flying time of arcs stretching from the Caspian to the southern Indian Ocean.

The best way to avoid the attention of military radars would have been to fly at a fixed altitude, on a recognized flight path and at cruising speed without changing course, pilots say.

Malaysian officials dismissed as speculation reports that the jet may have flown at low altitude to avoid detection.

But pilots said the best chance of feeling its way through the well-defended northern route would have been to hide in full view of military radar inside commercial lanes - raising awkward questions over security in several parts of the Asia-Pacific.

"The military radar controllers would have seen him moving on a fixed line, figured that it was a commercial aircraft at a high altitude, and not really a danger especially if he was on a recognized flight path," said one pilot.

"Some countries would ask you to identify yourself, but you are flying through the night and that is the time when the least attention is being paid to unidentified aircraft. As long as the aircraft is not flying towards a military target or point, they may not bother with you."

Although investigators refused on Monday to be drawn into theories, few in the industry believe a 250-tonne passenger jet could run amok globally without expert skills or preparation.

"Whoever did this must have had lots of aircraft knowledge, would have deliberately planned this, had nerves of steel to be confident enough to get through primary radar without being detected and been confident enough to control an aircraft full of people," a veteran airline captain told Reuters.

Join the discussion

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dvarnum1 March 17 2014 at 6:08 PM

This is a mystery and it continues to unfold with its twists and turns, theories after theories, and yet there is still no sign of this large plane. Who can be this skilled and clever to fool these many people who are trained, knowledgeable and experts about these kinds of tactics and deceptive moves. We are talking about the lives of 239 passengers. Indeed, this is major regardless of what methods and routes were used to get this plane from one point to another for whatever the reason(s) might be; humanity all around the globe should be concern about the disappears of this plane--11 days now without a trace. Like most concerns people around the world are still asking these questions: why would someone go through this much trouble to take a large aircraft? Is it the aircraft they really want or the passengers? What every the reasons are, there is a terrible feeling I have about what will be the outcome of this hijacking or sabotage. I sincerely hope those individuals and countries who are in charge of this investigative already have figured this out an moving cautiously and with all deliberate speed to resolve this criminal act.

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maril79fl March 17 2014 at 3:45 PM

Something is not adding up here-why a week to figure this out?

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1 reply
Ron maril79fl March 17 2014 at 4:40 PM

Slow brain trust.

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Angel March 17 2014 at 3:26 PM

I did not know that a triple 777 utilized flight engineers in the cockpit. I thought flight engineers went out many years ago. Also, I fly from SFO to PVG quite often either on a 747-400, a triple 777 or a Dreamliner 787 and on that 12 hour flight to PVG they always carry 2 crews for rest periods. How long was the flight from Malaysia to Beijing and what hour flight time limit constitutes carrying 2 separate crews up front.?

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2 replies
Elizabeth Angel March 17 2014 at 3:38 PM

He was a passenger. AOL appears to be broken today.

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1 reply
littlelayla4you Elizabeth March 17 2014 at 3:47 PM


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jjr526 Angel March 17 2014 at 3:48 PM

I know that SFO-PVG flight well. And yes two crews but the Malaysia flight would not have as I think that is a 5 hour flight.

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bgweddings March 17 2014 at 3:19 PM

Our experts need their hands on the Flight Simulator of the Captain. Forensics could determine if he practiced low level flights with a 777- if so, that would tell a lot. The data is usually on the hard drive saved....If there is no evidence of any foul play, the data will show this as well.

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jchrisculp March 17 2014 at 3:11 PM

One Story said that a relative kept calling a cell phone and it rang then went to voice mail, cant they track the phones, Im sure there were around 270 or more phones on that plane.

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1 reply
Ron jchrisculp March 17 2014 at 4:45 PM

Shut off your phone or get out of range and your calls will go to voice mail.
Dead batteries by now anyway.

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Mulberry Farm March 17 2014 at 3:03 PM

I just hope they find out what really happened in time to save the people on board, may GOD be with all of them could you imagine being held captive on a jet, thats scary. Let's find that jet and get our people home.

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patrickliveshere March 17 2014 at 2:51 PM

It never ceases to amaze me how in this day and age of technology and the ability to see the gender on a Nats' ass that we can't find an object or its parts of a large aircraft with a hundred people. Hell... contact the NSA, Google, etc., they can find them in no time!

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Dickie P March 17 2014 at 5:09 PM

Weird huh? I have never heard so many thories in my life from people who were not there and/or simply don't know. They are all competing for who is the most informed expert. The truth is there aren't any. Just pundits tired of reporting the usual lies being fed to the sheep who will listen and looking for a cow bell to follow. I just feel sorry for the innocent families and friends who are caught in the middle of all this.

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SteveO_weibring March 17 2014 at 11:49 PM

if china is bad where is china why are not they flying their miltary planes around looking no one of these third world countries would mess with china do they know more than they are telling.

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1 reply
cij101010 SteveO_weibring March 17 2014 at 11:59 PM


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ChingOW Mango March 17 2014 at 11:56 PM

Anyone remember the golfer who was flying in his private jet from FL to somewhere north and everyone on the plane was dead? That was also creepy and I don't think it was ever properly explained. This incident may never be properly solved or discussed.

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2 replies
retour ChingOW Mango March 18 2014 at 12:14 AM

that was very simple..the pilots for some reason forgot the bleed air had been shut off..and the plane didn't pressurize...they just all went to sleep and that was verified by fighters that flew along side and looked..a tragedy but also easily explained. It was a charter by the way...not his private jet.

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jwilli1251 ChingOW Mango March 18 2014 at 1:12 AM

The aircraft had a sudden depressurization that killed all on board. Military jet accompanied aircraft and saw crew incapacitated thru windshield. Rand out of gas and plummeted into sea.

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