Planning could hold key to disappearance of Flight MH370

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Planning could hold key to disappearance of Flight MH370
Flight officer Rayan Gharazeddine, on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, scans for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. China released on March 22 a new satellite image of a large floating object possibly linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, boosting search efforts as anger with the pace of the operation boiled over among Chinese relatives in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob Griffith (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
Crew on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion scan ahead as they search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. China released on March 22 a new satellite image of a large floating object possibly linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, boosting search efforts as anger with the pace of the operation boiled over among Chinese relatives in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob Griffith (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion flies past the HMAS Success as they search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 debris or wreckage in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. China released on March 22 a new satellite image of a large floating object possibly linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, boosting search efforts as anger with the pace of the operation boiled over among Chinese relatives in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob Griffith (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN - MARCH 22: Flight Lieutenant Jason Nichols on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, takes notes as they search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 debris or wreckage on March 22, 2014 in Southern Indian Ocean, off the west coast of Australia. The Orion under took a four hour journey to the search an area approximately 2500km south west of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 foot above the ocean with then a four hour return. The search to identify whether two large objects spotted via satellite in the Indian Ocean are related to missing flight MH370 continued today, for the third day, with no results. The airliner went missing nearly two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Photo by Rob Griffith-Pool/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 21: A Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion is seen on the tarmac after returning to Pearce air base following a search mission for possible MH370 debris on March 21, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Australian authorities yesterday received satellite imagery that shows two large objects in the Indian Ocean that may be debris from missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. The airliner went missing nearly two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
A photo taken on March 21, 2014, shows a crew member on a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft participating in the Australian Maritime Safety Authority-led search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the Southern Indian Ocean. Spotter planes spent a second fruitless day scouring a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean for wreckage from a Malaysian jet. Australian and US military aircraft usually used for anti-submarine operations criss-crossed the isolated search area 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) southwest of Perth, looking for two floating objects that had shown up on grainy satellite photos taken several days before. AFP PHOTO - POOL / BOHDAN WARCHOMIJ (Photo credit should read BOHDAN WARCHOMIJ/AFP/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 21: Royal Australian Air Force pilot Capt. Russell Adams addresses the media after returning from a search mission in a P3 Orion at Pearce air base on March 21, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Australian authorities yesterday received satellite imagery that shows two large objects in the Indian Ocean that may be debris from missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. The airliner went missing nearly two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Chinese relatives of passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 wait for news at the Metro Park Lido Hotel in Beijing on March 20, 2014. Surveillance aircraft scoured a remote and stormy section of the Indian Ocean on March 20 for a pair of floating objects that Australia and Malaysia guardedly called a 'credible' lead in the 12-day-old hunt for a missing passenger jet. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
INDIAN OCEAN - This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the areas searched between March 18 and March 20, 2014 for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. Two objects possibly connected to the search for the passenger liner, missing for nearly two weeks after disappearing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, have been spotted in the southern Indian Ocean, according to published reports quoting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (Photo by AMSA via Getty Images)
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: Australian Maritime Safety Authority Emergency Response Division General Manager John Young speaks to the media about satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 March 20, 2014 in Canberra, Australia. Two objects possibly connected to the search for the passenger liner, missing for nearly two weeks after disappearing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, have been spotted in the southern Indian Ocean. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)
A navigational radar on Indonesia's National Search and Rescue boat shows details during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. The last words spoken from the cockpit of the Malaysian passenger jet that went missing 10 days ago were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot, the airline's top executive said Monday. AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A personnel of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue checks the map during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. The last words spoken from the cockpit of the Malaysian passenger jet that went missing 10 days ago were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot, the airline's top executive said Monday. AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A personnel of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue looks over horizon during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. The last words spoken from the cockpit of the Malaysian passenger jet that went missing 10 days ago were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot, the airline's top executive said Monday. AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Colonel Do Duc Minh (2st L), Vietnam Air Force's 370 Division's Chief of Staff, points at a map as he speaks to reporters about search flights aimed at finding the missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh city on March 15, 2014. Do Duc Minh said Vietnam continues their search flights while widening the search areas close to air spaces under control of Thailand and Singapore. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH NAM (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
A ground worker carries out maintenance works on a Vietnam Air Force's Russian-made AN-26 aircraft that was used along with other types of aircrafts at finding the missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh city on March 15, 2014. A Malaysian jet that vanished a week ago appears to have changed course and continued flying for hours, a senior Malaysian military official said, citing radar data indicating a 'skilled, competent' pilot was at the controls. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH NAM (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA MARCH 15: Mystery over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines passenger Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China continues on March 15, 2014. The flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. (local time) on March 8 and lost contact with air traffic control near the Island of Pulau Perak, in less than an hour after take-off, at approximately 2:40 a.m. A joint search and rescue effort covering an area of the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea and Andaman Sea is being conducted by more than 12 countries. ( Photo by AA Graphic/Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 14: Members of the public, MAS staff, and politicians pray during a special prayer as the search for missing Malaysian airline MH370 expands to the Indian Ocean March 14, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The missing aircraft carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew disappeared six days ago baffling the international rescue and search team who have found no remains or clues in the waters surrounding South East Asia. All passengers and crew are currently under investigation for possible sabotage although no evidence of such activity has been found. (Photo by Rahman Roslan/Getty Images)
Indonesian Air Force officials at Medan city military base plot the Indonesian military search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 12, 2014 in the area of Malacca Strait, a sea passageway between Indonesia (seen left of the map) and Malaysia (seen right on the map). Malaysia faced a storm of criticism on March 12 over contradictions and information gaps in the hunt for a missing airliner with 239 people on board, as the search zone dramatically veered far from the intended flight path. AFP PHOTO / ATAR (Photo credit should read ATAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Indonesian Air Force at Medan city military base inspects the Indonesian military search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 12, 2014 in the area of Malacca Strait, a sea passageway between Indonesia (seen left of the map) and Malaysia (seen top left of the map). Malaysia faced a storm of criticism on March 12 over contradictions and information gaps in the hunt for a missing airliner with 239 people on board, as the search zone dramatically veered far from the intended flight path. AFP PHOTO / ATAR (Photo credit should read ATAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Beachgoers walk past a sand sculpture made by Indian sand artist Sudersan Pattnaik with a message of prayers for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 - which vanished from radar early on March 8 with ongoing search operations mounted by multiple nations taking place in the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, and the Andaman Sea - at Puri beach, some 65 kilometers away from Bhubaneswar, on March 14, 2014. Malaysia denied March 12 that the hunt for a missing jet was in disarray, after the search veered far from the planned route and China said that conflicting information about its course was 'pretty chaotic'. AFP PHOTO/ ASIT KUMAR (Photo credit should read ASIT KUMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of a passenger on board missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 cries as she arrives at the Everly hotel in Putrajaya on March 12, 2014. Malaysia's air force chief said authorities have not ruled out the possibility a missing airliner inexplicably changed course before losing contact, but denied reports the jet had been detected far from its planned flight path. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency personnel scans the seas aboard a boat on patrol in the Malacca Strait off Aceh province located in the area of northern Sumatra island on March 12, 2014 during the continued search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The search for a missing Malaysian jet swung northwest towards the Andaman Sea on March 12, far from its intended flight path, exposing Malaysia to mounting criticism that its response was in disarray. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 11: This composite of images #477770287 & #477770285 shows cctv imagery released by police of an Iranian suspect, Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, who was travelling on Flight MH370 with a stolen Austrian passport, (L) and an unindentified suspect who was travelling on Flight MH370 with a stolen Italian passport (R), on March 11, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Officials have expanded the search area for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 to include more of the Gulf of Thailand between Malayisa and Vietnam and land along the Malay Pensinusula. The flight carrying 239 passengers from Kuala Lumpur to Thailand was reported missing on the morning of March 8 after the crew failed to check in as scheduled. Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports. (Photo by How Foo Yeen/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 10: Major General Datuk Affendi Buang briefs the media over latest updates on missing Malaysia Airline MH370 on March 10, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Potential sightings of possible airliner debris and a possible oil slick in the sea off Vietnam have not been officially verified or confirmed as investigative teams continue to search for the whereabouts of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MG370 and its 293 passengers, travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The airliner was reported missing on the morning of March 8 after the crew failed to check in as scheduled. Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports. (Photo by How Foo Yeen/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 08: Medical staff (C) arrive at a hotel meeting room care of families of missing persons at Lidu Hotel on March 8, 2014 in Beijing, China. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and carrying 239 onboard was reported missing after the crew failed to check in as scheduled while flying over the sea between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, according to published reports. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Malaysian Airlines senior officials Dr Hugh Dunleavy (L) and a member of the airline's crisis management team, Ignatius Ong (R), face the Chinese media after arriving in China to deal with the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 plane, in Beijing on March 8, 2014. Malaysia Airlines said a flight carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing early on March 8, and the airline was notifying next of kin in a sign it expected the worst. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 08: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA) Joshua Law Kok Hwa (C), Malaysia Airlines' regional senior vice president of China, speaks at a conference regarding the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 at the Metropark Lido Hotel on March 8, 2014, in Beijing, China. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and carrying 239 onboard was reported missing after the crew failed to check in as scheduled while flying over the sea between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, according to published reports. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
AT SEA, KELANTAN COAST, MALAYSIA - MARCH 09: In this handout provided by the Malaysian Maritime Agency, a patrol vessel of Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency searches during the search and rescue mission for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 9, 2014 off the Kelantan coast, Malaysia. Potential sightings of possible airliner debris and a possible oil slick in the sea off Vietnam have not been officially verified or confirmed as investigative teams continue to search for the whereabouts of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MG370 and its 293 passengers, travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The airliner was reported missing on the morning of March 8 after the crew failed to check in as scheduled. Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports. (Photo by Malaysian Maritime Agency via Getty Images)
Buddhist monks offer special prayers for passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on March 9, 2014. Malaysia said a missing airliner carrying 239 people may have inexplicably turned back as authorities launched a terror probe into the plane's sudden disappearance, investigating suspect passengers who boarded with stolen passports. AFP PHOTO/ STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
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(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.


NOT IN THE MANUAL

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.

HIDING IN FULL VIEW?

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.
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