It was about 01:30 local time on Saturday 8 March that the secondary radar return of flight MH370 no longer painted on Kuala Lumpur radar screens, and no-one at the Vietnamese ATC centre at Ho Chi Minh City that was expecting to take over surveillance responsibility for it could see them either.
A week later, by Saturday 15 March, most expert observers had come to the conclusion – and Malaysia had announced – that the Boeing 777′s disappearance was deliberately engineered by someone on board. The action to switch off the aircraft’s transponder and – as we found out later – also its ACARS technical datalink, was carried out before the aircraft was turned west from its north-easterly Beijing-bound track.
Now with hindsight we can see that the switching-off of the transponder at the ATC handover point from Malaysian to Vietnamese airspace – assuming it was deliberate – was a clever move, because the Kuala Lumpur controllers would assume the flight was now the business of their Ho Chi Minh City counterparts and could ignore it, while the latter would assume it had not yet made radio contact nor appeared on radar but would soon do so. The predictable effect was to delay the raising of the alarm by either party.
But on Sunday, the day after the aircraft’s acknowledged disappearance, Malaysia either had not investigated what its military had seen on its primary radar, or they were not admitting they had. On Monday they leaked that MH370 may have turned west, and suggested the search should be widened beyond the Gulf of Thailand/South China Sea into the Malacca Strait to the west of the Malaysian peninsula. On Tuesday they confirmed that a primary radar contact in the area where MH370 was last seen had indeed turned west, but they could not be sure that it was definitely the missing aircraft. Clearly they had let an unidentified aircraft pass through Malaysian sovereign territory without bothering to identify it; not something they were happy to admit.
Even by Friday 14th the Malaysian transport minister was still saying the unidentified westbound contact had not been definitely accepted as being MH370, so he was reluctant to switch the multinational search effort entirely to the west and to abandon the Gulf of Thailand where the last transponder return had been seen on Saturday 8th. But that day Inmarsat stated that its geostationary constellation of ten communications satellites had picked up vestigial automated signals from MH370 many hours after the aircraft had “disappeared”.
On Saturday 15th the Malaysian authorities, by then well briefed by Inmarsat and its aeronautical communications partner SITA, acknowledged the significance of the satellite communications data, and redesignated the search areas. One search area was designated on the assumption the aircraft had tracked north-west for up to seven hours, the other to the south – into the Indian Ocean – for the same length of time, making it clear that the position signature derived by the satellites was not definitive.
This automated communication was the product of a tracking and data service that Inmarsat offers but Malaysia Airlines had not subscribed to, so the satellites were sending out interrogation signals – “pings” – to link up with service users, but aircraft like the MH370 777 that were equipped but had not subscribed would only respond vestigially. But these responses are accepted as being proof that the aircraft continued its flight, even if not information about its precise track.
Today – Sunday 16 March – the signs of really practical thinking and coordination of the search and investigation are beginning to appear for the first time.
The Malaysian government has called upon all the countries to the north-west as far as Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea to check their primary radar records for unidentified contacts in their airspace in the seven hours after the 777 went missing. Depending on the actual track the aircraft followed, if it had headed approximately north-west this could include some – if not all – of the following countries: Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, China, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, 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?
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.
Meanwhile the Malaysian authorities are checking the crew and passenger lists of MH370 with a view to doing much deeper background checks on them all. After all, if this “disappearance” was engineered by someone on board, surely something in their history will provide a hint as to a motive.
But the big problem is the sheer size of the search areas to the north and south.
If the aircraft went north it will be found one day. If it went south there’s no guarantee it will ever be found in the vastness of the southern Indian Ocean.