Vanished plane flew for more than six hours after severing contact; focus turns to pilots

By Ian Mader

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 15 2014 9:48 p.m. MDT

Najib confirmed that Malaysian air force defense radar picked up traces of the plane turning back westward, crossing over Peninsular Malaysia into the northern stretches of the Strait of Malacca. Authorities previously had said this radar data could not be verified.

"These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane," Najib said, saying that a team of Malaysian, U.S. and British aviation investigators concurred in the findings so far.

Although the aircraft was flying virtually blind to air traffic controllers at this point, onboard equipment continued to send "pings" to satellites.

To turn off the transponder, someone in the cockpit would have to turn a knob with multiple selections to the "off" position while pressing down at the same time, said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. That's something a pilot would know, but it could also be learned by someone who researched the plane on the Internet, he said.

The ACARS system has two aspects, Goglia said. The information part of the system was shut down, but not the transmission part. In most planes, the information section can be shut down by hitting cockpit switches in sequence in order to get to a computer screen where an option must be selected using a keypad, said Goglia, an expert on aircraft maintenance.

That's also something a pilot would know how to do, but that could also be discovered through research, he said.

But to turn off the other transmission portion of the ACARS, it would be necessary to go to an electronics bay beneath the cockpit. That's something a pilot wouldn't normally know how to do, Goglia said. The Malaysia plane's ACARS transmitter continued to send out blips that were recorded by satellite after the transponder was turned off. The blips don't contain any messages or data, but the satellite can tell in a very broad way what region the blips are coming from.

Malaysia's prime minister said the last confirmed signal between the plane and a satellite came at 8:11 a.m. — 7 hours and 31 minutes after takeoff. This was more than five hours later than the previous time given by Malaysian authorities as the possible last contact.

Airline officials have said the plane had enough fuel to fly for up to about eight hours.

"The investigations team is making further calculations which will indicate how far the aircraft may have flown after this last point of contact," Najib said.

He said authorities had determined that the plane's last communication with a satellite was in one of two possible arcs, or "corridors" — a northern one from northern Thailand through to the border of the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and a southern one from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.

The northern route might theoretically have taken the plane through China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan — which hosts U.S. military bases — and Central Asia, but it was unclear how it could fly through the region undetected. The region is also home to extremist Islamist groups, unstable governments and remote, sparsely populated areas.

Flying south would have put the plane over the Indian Ocean, with an average depth of 3,890 meters (12,762 feet) and thousands of kilometers (miles) from the nearest land mass.

Britain-based aviation security consultant Chris Yates thought it was highly unlikely the plane would have taken the northern route across land in Asia. "In theory, any country that sees a strange blip is going to get fighter planes up to have a look," he said. "And if those fighter planes can't make head or tail of what it is, they will shoot it down."

At least 14 countries are involved in the search for the plane, using 43 ships and 58 aircraft.

Associated Press writers Chris Brummitt and Jim Gomez contributed to this report from Kuala Lumpur. AP writer Didi Tang, video producer Aritz Parra and news assistant Henry Hou contributed from Beijing. AP writer Joan Lowy contributed from Washington.

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