Thai radar adds possible clue to trace jet's route

By Thanyarat Doksone

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 19 2014 6:44 a.m. MDT

Malaysia airport police officer stands in front of messages board for the passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. New radar data from Thailand gave Malaysian investigators more potential clues Wednesday for how to retrace the course of the missing Malaysian airliner, while a massive multinational search unfolded in an area the size of Australia.

Vincent Thian, Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — New radar data from Thailand gave Malaysian investigators more potential clues Wednesday for how to retrace the course of the missing Malaysian airliner, while a massive multinational search unfolded in an area the size of Australia.

Search crews from 26 countries including Thailand are looking for the plane that vanished early March 8 with 239 people aboard en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Frustration is growing among relatives of those on the plane at the lack of progress in the search.

Investigators have identified two giant arcs of territory spanning the possible positions of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 about 7½ hours after take-off, based on its last faint signal to a satellite. Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, said finding the plane was like trying to locate a few people somewhere between New York and California.

Aircraft from Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand on Wednesday scoured a search area stretching across 305,000 square kilometers (117,000 square miles) of the Indian Ocean, about 2,600 kilometers (1,600 miles) southwest of Perth, on Australia's west coast.

Merchant ships were also asked to look for any trace of the plane. Nothing has been found, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

Early in the search, Malaysian officials said they suspected the plane backtracked toward the Strait of Malacca, off western Malaysia. But it took a week for them to confirm Malaysian military radar data suggesting that route.

Thai military officials said Tuesday their own radar showed an unidentified plane, possibly Flight 370, flying toward the strait minutes after the Malaysian jet's transponder signal was lost. Air force spokesman Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn said the Thai military doesn't know whether the plane it detected was Flight 370.

Thailand's failure to quickly share that information may not substantially change what Malaysian officials now know, but it raises questions about the degree to which some countries are sharing their defense data.

The jet took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12:40 a.m. March 8 and its transponder, which allows air traffic controllers to identify and track it, ceased communicating at 1:20 a.m.

Montol said that at 1:28 a.m., Thai military radar "was able to detect a signal, which was not a normal signal, of a plane flying in the direction opposite from the MH370 plane," back toward Kuala Lumpur. The plane later turned right, toward Butterworth, a Malaysian city along the Strait of Malacca. The radar signal was infrequent and did not include data such as the flight number.

When asked why it took so long to release the information, Montol said it didn't raise any alarms at the time because the signal was not of something heading toward Thailand. He said the plane never entered Thai airspace.

Later, when Malaysia requested data, Thai authorities had experts take a new look at the data and then forward the details, Montol said.

Investigators now will be checking previous Malaysian military radar data against the Thai data to see if they can confirm locations for the plane and possibly a direction it was heading in order to narrow the search area, aviation safety experts said.

The two sets of data have to be "overlayed" to confirm that the hits, or targets, are recording the same plane or that it is indeed a plane and not a flock of birds or even a rainstorm. To do that, investigators need to determine that both radars were looking at the same place in the sky at exactly the same time down to the second.

Because the plane's transponder had been turned off the hits don't contain identification, location or altitude. Both radars were recording what's known as a primary return — essentially a radar signal bouncing of an object in the sky and returning.

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