Over the last couple of days, Malaysia and outside investigators have begun releasing information that strongly suggests that the fate of Flight 370 was no accident. First, the flight path taken after deliberately turning off the transponders showed awareness of military radar systems in the region, and then came word that subsystems continued signaling for hours after the flight diverted from its path. Now a leading paper in Malaysia reports that the Malaysian Air flight dropped to below 5,000 feet for part of its mysterious journey, the better to avoid commercial radar too:
As the search for the missing flight MH370 enters its 10th day with few clues as to its whereabouts, the New Straits Times said today the Boeing 777-200ER dropped 5,000 feet (1,500m) to evade commercial radar detection.
In an exclusive story, the government-backed paper said investigators analysing MH370’s flight data revealed that the 200-tonne, fully laden twinjet descended 1,500m or even lower to evade commercial (secondary) radar coverage after it turned back from its flight path en route to Beijing. …
Investigators poring over MH370’s flight data had said the plane had flown low and used “terrain masking” as it flew over the Bay of Bengal and headed north towards land, the NST reported. …
“Terrain masking” refers to an ability to position an aircraft so there is natural earth hiding it from the radio waves sent from the radar system. It is a technique mostly used in aerial combat where military pilots would fly at extremely low elevations upon normally hilly or mountainous terrain to “mask” their approach.
The flight may also have paralleled normal commercial routes to confuse ground-control trackers:
Officials, who formed the technical team, were looking into the possibility that whoever was piloting the jet at that time had taken advantage of the busy airways over the Bay of Bengal and stuck to a commercial route to avoid raising the suspicion of those manning primary (military) radars, the paper said.
All of this means that the disappearance didn’t come from a technical malfunction or catastrophic failure. Nor does it mean a hijacking in the two contexts we already know, either for ransom (monetary or political), or for annihilation — at least not at the moment. Whoever took Flight 370 had plenty of highly-populated targets in the region if they wanted to turn the plane into a guided missile, a la 9/11, but instead tried very hard to disappear off the grid. Why?
Investigators still don’t know the answer to why, but they may have a clue about who:
The Boeing 777’s Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, last transmitted at 1:07 a.m., about 40 minutes after takeoff. ACARS sends information about the jet’s engines and other data to the airline. The transponder, which identifies the plane to commercial radar systems, was shut down about 15 minutes later.
The final, reassuring words from the cockpit — “All right, good night” — were believed to have been spoken by co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, according to Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.
The focus had been on the captain of the flight, who had his house searched yesterday after Malaysian officials belatedly acknowledged that something very fishy was going on over the South China Sea. There is no word on whether Malaysia has begun searching the residence of Hamid, although it seems highly likely that a lot of security services around the world have begun to take a big interest in the entire flight crew.
Officials in Kuala Lumpur have taken a lot of heat for their handling of the crisis. China added to the pressure today, demanding that Malaysia “immediately” expand the search area for the flight:
“Search and rescue efforts have become even harder now, and the area is much bigger,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told Reuters on Monday. “We hope that Malaysia can provide more thorough, accurate information to countries participating.”
China’s media have been scathing of Malaysia’s hunt for the missing jet and have criticized conflicting information about the search.
In an op-ed in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper Yao Shujie, the head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, said that Malaysia “has lost authority and credibility” due to its chaotic response.
“The contradictory and piecemeal information Malaysia Airlines and its government have provided has made search efforts difficult and the entire incident even more mysterious,” the China Daily newspaper wrote in an editorial.
Australia has decided to take the lead in searching the southern areas of the Indian Ocean, which is where the limit of the plane’s fuel would have taken the flight — if it was headed out to sea at all. It seems a lot more likely that all of this deliberation was meant for something other than a quiet ocean ditch, though, and more likely that the plane turned toward land. For what reason … no one knows. Yet.