KUALA LUMPUR, March 19 — More clues trickling in over missing flight MH370 — a blip on Thailand's radar and reports from Maldives of a low-flying jumbo jet on the morning of March 8 — bolster previous data showing the plane's “deliberately” diverted flight path to the west of Malaysia.
But the information, in particular the 10-day-old report from Thailand's air force that the missing plane may have been spotted by three of its radar, has also raised more questions.
Several headlines across the globe this morning suggested that the already-daunting search for MH370 - now spanning a staggering 7.68 million square kilometres across land and sea masses the size of Australia - could be made even more difficult if countries decide to be stingy with possibly crucial information, for fear of exposing holes in their military defences.
Thai air force spokesmen Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn informed Malaysia only yesterday that his country's military observed data plots on its radar system that could have been from the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft.
The plane, still unidentified, was tracked over the Straits of Malacca at around 1.28am on March 8, according to UK's The Daily Mail.
Asked why this data was not shared with Malaysia the moment news reports of the jumbo jet's mysterious disappearance streamed in, Suchookorn explained that it was because the information had not been requested in the beginning.
“We did not pay any attention to it,” he was quoted saying in an Associated Press report.
“The Royal Thai Air Force only looks after any threats against our country, so anything that did not look like a threat to us, we simply look at it without taking actions.”
He added that the aircraft carrying 239 people never entered Thai airspace and that Malaysia had not been specific in its initial request for information, the agency reported.
“When they asked again and there was new information and assumptions from (Malaysian) Prime Minister Najib Razak, we took a look at our information again. It didn’t take long for us to figure out, although it did take some experts to find out about it,” the airman reportedly added.
The data from Thailand changes little in the investigation but also raises doubts over the extent some countries are willing to go in releasing confidential defence information, The Daily Mail pointed out.
Operations and safety editor of Flight Global David Learmount noted the same issue in his blog Monday.
The aviation expert pointed out that Malaysia has already called upon its counterparts in countries to the northwest of the peninsula as far as up to Turkmenistan to trawl its radar records for any sign of missing flight MH370.
Depending on the flight path of the Boeing 777, Learmount wrote, then MH370 could have been tracked by Thailand, Myanmar, China, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
“If the aircraft had gone that way, surely military primary radar in one of those countries – or several – would have picked up the signal from this unidentified aircraft, and the vigilant radar operator would have scrambled a fighter to intercept the intruder? Wouldn’t s/he?” the expert asked.
“Or maybe not. Maybe these states’ air defences, like Malaysia’s, are not what they are cracked up to be. And maybe they wouldn’t want the rest of the world to know that,” he added.
On Saturday, Malaysia released crucial information to confirm that MH370 had been “deliberately” piloted off-course by someone on board who likely had aviation expertise, judging from data picked up by radar and satellite systems.
Search and rescue operations, which had initially been concentrated on the South China Sea where the aircraft was previously believed to be last heard from, have now moved to two corridors - a northern arc from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in central Asia, or a southern one from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
The highly disputed timeline of the last communication received from MH370's cockpit shows that the plane's Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) — which sends data on the plane's health — was sent at 1.07am on March 8.
The next signal due half an hour later at 1.37am never came.
But at 1.19am, a voice from the cockpit, now believed to have come from co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid told Malaysian ground control - “All right, good night” - just as the aircraft prepared to enter the coverage of Vietnamese air controllers, on its way to Beijing.
At about 1.22am, a person experts say must possess deep technical knowledge of the Boeing plane turned off its transponder, rendering it invisible to commercial radar.
At 2.15am, Malaysia's primary radar spotted an aircraft at the Straits of Malacca, suggesting an “air turnback” that showed the aircraft, for a still unknown reason, making a sharp turn westwards.
Reports have now streamed of a possible sighting of the aircraft from several residents of the Maldives, which is located within one of the suspected flight path's towards the Indian Ocean.
According to an eyewitness quoted by local news portal Haveeru Online, a low-flying jumbo jet was spotted at about 6.15am on March 8, the day MH370 was reported missing.
“I’ve never seen a jet flying so low over our island before. We’ve seen seaplanes, but I’m sure that this was not one of those. I could even make out the doors on the plane clearly,” the eyewitness was quoted saying.
“It's not just me either, several other residents have reported seeing the exact same thing. Some people got out of their houses to see what was causing the tremendous noise too.”
The report said that eyewitnesses from Kuda Huvadhoo concurred that the plane was travelling north towards south-east, which is towards the southern tip of Maldives.
“They also noted the incredibly loud noise that the flight made when it flew over the island,” Haveeru Online reported.
The Boeing 777 aircraft carrying 239 people including 12 crew members and two infants has been missing for nearly 12 days now since it left the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) at 12.41am on March 8.