KUALA LUMPUR, March 16 — Pivotal revelations by Putrajaya yesterday all but confirmed “how” Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing, but has brought us no closer to “where” the plane might be.
Data culled from satellite communications with the Boeing 777-200ER suggest that it flew for as long as seven hours, putting it somewhere within a 7,000-km radius or 155 million square kilometres—nearly a third of the Earth’s surface.
But the satellite signals also provided vital clues about the plane’s possible final resting place: two points intersecting an orbit around the last satellite the plane pinged indicate two possible “corridors” where MH370 may have landed.
With the multi-nation manhunt led by Malaysia now shifting its search and rescue efforts away from the South China Sea to two new locations, questions now arise as to where investigators should direct their search mission now, over eight days since the plane with 239 people on board went missing.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said yesterday new information showed that while the transponders and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) were turned off shortly into the flight, MH370 made a final satellite communication at 8.11am on March 8, nearly eight hours after it departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Based on the new data, the plane’s last communication with the satellite could be in either one of two locations, the “southern corridor” from Indonesia to the Indian Ocean off Australia or the “northern corridor” stretching from the borders of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to northern Thailand.
Although this news by no means increases the probability of finding the aircraft, two main reasons give weight to the plausibility that MH370 would not likely be found in the northern corridor.
Northern corridor home to highly militarised countries
The northern arc passes through some of the world’s most highly-militarised areas with robust air defence networks, some run by the US military.
According to a New York Times report yesterday, the northern corridor would encompass northern Iran, through Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, and through northern India and the Himalayan mountains and Myanmar.
Up-to date air defence radar networks would have almost certainly detected an unidentified aircraft flying past any of these countries, especially India and Pakistan, whose mutual border is tightly-guarded.
Air bases near that area would include Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, where the US Air Force’s 455th Air Expeditionary Wing is based, and a large Indian air base, Hindon Air Force Station.
Indian air traffic control has ruled out the possibility that MH370 cross into the territory’s airspace undetected.
“If an aircraft wants to avoid being seen, they can easily become invisible to a civilian radar by switching off the transponder that relays information about the plane. But it cannot avoid defence systems.
“The Indian Air Force has radars in multiple installations across the country and it is inconceivable that none of them spotted the odd blip with no flight clearance,” air traffic controllers’ guild secretary Sugata Pramanik told the Times of India.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also concluded that the plane would unlikely have evaded all radar to land, and have dismissed the idea that any of the countries within the northern corridor would have missed it attempting to enter their airspace.
“... the idea it could cross into Indian airspace and not get picked up made no sense,” an unnamed investigator told the NYT.
The FBI investigators also pointed out that at nearly 70m long and weighing over 140 tonnes unladen, the jumbo jet would have required a long runway to land—not the size of the typical hidden airfield.
MH370 had just enough fuel to make it near Australia
A path from Malaysia to the ocean off Australia would have taken as much as 4,800km, about the maximum distance the Boeing 777 could have flown with its fuel load; MH370 was fuelled for 3,500km.
In its report yesterday, the Bloomberg news service quoted an official familiar with the investigation as saying that the plane may have flown beyond its last known position about 1,600km west of Perth, although that location may not be an indication of where the plane ended up.
The southern corridor, with less land and few islands stretching all the way to Antarctica might also explain why the missing aircraft has yet to be found.
Some of the remote islands throughout the arc, with a population of fewer than 1,000 people are equipped with small airports, the Bloomberg report had stated.
The “southern corridor” also appears to be where rescuers are betting on; search-and-rescue assets from the now-ended hunt in the South China Sea are being redeployed to the Indian Ocean.
The disappearance of MH370 40 minutes after it departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport for Beijing on March 8 was described by the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) as an “unprecedented mystery”.
The Boeing 777 — considered one of the most reliable in aviation history — went dark without ever issuing any distress signals.
Yesterday, Malaysia revealed that the plane’s communications systems were disabled manually and the flight flown deliberately flown off course, but stopped short of confirming MH370 was hijacked.
An ongoing search using the aerial and naval assets of 12 countries over the past week has not yielded a single shred of evidence on the whereabouts of the missing plane.