Let’s go back to 8 March and start again from the point where the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 radar return disappears from ATC screens as the transponder is deactivated, then turns west from its north-easterly heading.
This sequence, using what little is known about the 777′s behaviour that night, is intended to show that a more positive reaction from the Malaysian air force and government would not necessarily have been a matter of simple choices with a clear outcome.
So here we go:
This time, a Malaysian air force air defence controller sees an unidentified target on his primary radar approaching Malaysian sovereign territory from the east over the Gulf of Thailand. He calls civilian ATC to find out if they know the target’s identity, and when they don’t, hits the scramble button and sends a pair of MiG-29s to investigate.
Visual interception is difficult because it’s the middle of a dark night, and although the MiGs have radar that enables the pilots to spot targets and lock their missiles onto them, Malaysia does not have any hostile neighbours so they would not consider shooting down an aircraft without identifying it visually. Or at least not unless its behaviour indicated hostile intent.
So they get radar vectors from their own team on the ground and approach the target carefully.
This would be fairly easy if the 777 had its navigation lights on, but if the lights, like the transponders, were not operating, it would be a very dangerous operation with a high risk of unintended collision.
Let’s say they have sufficient starlight visibility to come alongside. They identify a Malaysia 777, report it to base who contact ATC and are told of MH370′s disappearance.
One of the interceptor pilots is provided with radio frequencies that the 777 would be expected to be using, and tries calling. When this doesn’t work, he tries the international emergency frequency, but no response.
One of the MiGs holds off, the other nudges closer looking for clues of onboard activity. When this yields little information because it’s 02:00 local time, the cabin lights are dimmed and most of the window shades are down, the pilot positions his aircraft, with navigation lights on, in clear view of the 777′s pilots. He flashes his navigation lights, then settles alongside to look for a response from the pilots in the dim cockpit. But there is none.
He tries again, this time using a procedure intended to tell the 777 pilots that they have been intercepted, and must follow the leading interceptor.
Moving ahead of the 777 but slightly to one side, the MiG-29 pilot flashes his lights, then rocks his wings, and enters a slow turn that the 777 is supposed to follow. But it doesn’t.
The little airborne convoy passes over the Malaysian peninsula with no reaction from the 777 pilots. It continues on a level trajectory that does not suggest hostile intent. Then once over the straits of Malacca it slowly turns north-west toward the Andaman Sea.
The MiGs follow, reporting to base – which can see them on radar – and declaring their fuel state. They will need to be replaced soon, so the air force has to bring in standby crews and to prepare replacement fighters to shadow the 777. The air force has no transport or surveillance aircraft with anything remotely like the speed and performance of a 777, and all fighters have relatively short range.
The MiGs have to break away and return to base before they are replaced. Meanwhile the 777 is going out of Malaysian primary radar range.
At some stage, now unseen, the 777 turns south west and keeps going until it has no fuel left, and disappears into the sea.
If Malaysia Airlines had subscribed to a satellite tracking service, for it to work would depend on the equipment being switched on.
All electrical equipment on all aircraft can be switched off, or deprived of power by isolating the circuits that supply it. The ability to isolate all electrical equipment on board an aircraft is an essential protection against fire, the risk of which is historically greater than the risk of an aircraft being taken over by people with malign intent.