MISSING MH370: THE SEARCH - DAY 5

Search for MH370 focusing on area north of Malaysia's Penang as well

Unidentified plane on radar suggests MH370 could have veered off-course

 

THE massive search for the missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) jetliner is also now focusing on the north of Penang after military radar data readings suggested that the plane could have veered hundreds of kilometres off-course.

Malaysia's air force chief said yesterday that military radar had tracked an unidentified aircraft to a point 322km north-west of Penang on Saturday, but it has yet to be determined whether that is the missing plane.

The finding offers a new clue into the mysterious disappearance of Beijing-bound Flight MH370 after it took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport with 239 passengers and crew members on board. Five days of scouring the seas have turned up neither debris nor wreckage from the plane.

However, the finding does not explain why the plane might have changed course.

Malaysian officials say they are baffled by the lack of a distress call in the minutes before the plane vanished from radar screens 50 minutes after take-off.

The fruitless search so far, plus conflicting information given by different officials have earned Malaysia harsh criticism from both the distraught families of the missing people, as well as international media. Some say Malaysian and MAS officials have not been transparent.

At a press conference yesterday, Malaysian authorities denied withholding information.

Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters that Malaysia had said on Saturday itself that search operations were being widened to the Strait of Malacca.

This decision was made after a review of military radar readings suggested that MH370 may have turned back from its original flight path heading east towards Vietnam.

Air Force chief Rodzali Daud said the military radar had tracked an unidentified aircraft intermittently with the last "plot" recorded at 2.15am on Saturday about 322km north-west of Penang.

"I'm not saying this is MH370, okay? We are still corroborating this, we are still meeting the experts," he said, adding that they have to wait until it has been corroborated by radars of neighbouring countries and analysed by experts.

Military radars do not give identification of the aircraft unlike the civilian air traffic control system, which communicates directly with the plane.

The authorities are working on the assumption it could be MH370 because the unidentified aircraft had turned around in the same area that the MAS plane was in before it disappeared.

The aircraft was believed to be a civilian plane heading north. It was not intercepted by the military as it was not deemed hostile.

If it was indeed the MAS plane, it would have flown at least 45 minutes in the opposite direction from its flight path. Malaysia's Air Traffic Control lost contact with it about 50 minutes after it took off.

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin said that based on this preliminary finding, the search was expanded immediately to the west coast.

"Until today, we're still not sure if it is the same aircraft. That's why we're searching in two areas (South China Sea and Strait of Malacca). If we knew for sure it is in the Strait of Malacca, we would have moved all our assets there," he said.

The minister dismissed claims that this caused confusion, saying the Malaysian side had already said on Saturday it was expanding the search area.

"It's confusion if you want it to be seen as confusion. We have been very consistent," he said.

A total of 42 ships and 39 aircraft from 12 countries are involved in the search, which covers nearly 27,000 sq nautical miles, or about two-thirds the size of Peninsular Malaysia.

The size of the search area in the Strait of Malacca is 12,425 sq nautical miles and the area being scoured in the South China Sea is 14,440 sq nautical miles.

Responding to reports that the US Federal Aviation Administration had warned of a potential weakness in Boeing 777s, Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters yesterday that the MAS aircraft was "airworthy".

carolynh@sph.com.sg

joycel@sph.com.sg

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Background story

Six things to know

1 What is the area of the search?

The total search area covers nearly 27,000 sq nautical miles - or just over two-thirds the size of Peninsular Malaysia. They include 14,440 sq nautical miles in the South China Sea and 12,425 sq nautical miles north of the Malacca Strait.

2 At what time did the plane last show up on radar?

It last showed up on civilian radar at 1.20am above the South China Sea, but the Malaysian military spotted an unidentified blip at 2.15am 322km north-west of Penang.

3 Are they sure the blip was the missing flight, MH370?

No, they do not know that for sure.

4 How many countries are now involved in the search for Flight MH370?

As of last night, 12 countries, including Singapore, Japan and India.

5 How many vessels have been deployed?

A total of 42 ships and 39 aircraft.

6 Did any passengers fail to board the plane and was their baggage on board?

Four passengers did not show up, but they had not checked in. Four others from a waiting list were taken on board.