Malaysian Air Tragedy

Flight into mystery

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Relatives of passengers at a protest rally outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing on March 25. Photo: AFP

A crew member of the Australian Navy ship HMAS Success looking for debris in the southern Indian Ocean. Photo: REUTERS/Handout

Malayasian Prime Minister Najib Razak making the formal announcement on March 24 about the loss of Flight MH370. Also in the picture is Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who concurrently holds the transport porfolio. Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg

The official announcement that Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 probably crashed into the Indian Ocean brings little relief to the families of those on board and leaves many questions unanswered as the search for the plane continues.

THE formal announcement by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak that Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 had in all likelihood crashed into the Indian Ocean south-west of the Australian city of Perth will not bring immediate closure to the grief and anger that the incident has left in its wake. The Malaysian government based its conclusions on the new satellite data provided by the British company Inmarsat that conclusively showed that the last position of the plane was in the southern Indian Ocean. Floating debris, spotted by satellites and by search aircraft, in the area is further proof of the general location of the crash. At the time of writing, it is yet to be confirmed that any of the debris is connected to the plane. Relatives of the Chinese passengers on board the plane, who were assembled in hotels in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, were naturally shocked and some of them had to be hospitalised after they were individually informed by the Malaysian authorities about the loss of the aircraft.

In the fortnight after the plane disappeared on March 8 while on a scheduled direct flight from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, to Beijing, close kin of the missing passengers were already distraught with the slow flow of information, some of which was misleading, from the Malaysian authorities. After the loss of the aircraft was officially announced, relatives and friends of those who perished led an angry demonstration in front of the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing. The Chinese authorities had to use force to stop the protesters from entering the Embassy compound.

In a statement released to the media, the Malaysian authorities said that the “ongoing multinational search operations will continue, as we seek answers to the questions which remain”. The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Boeing 777 could end up as one of the unsolved mysteries of our times. The navies and air forces of the major countries of the world have been helping the Malaysian government to locate the plane since it disappeared from the radar screens in the early hours of March 8. Initially, on the basis of the preliminary information provided by the Malaysian authorities, intensive search operations were conducted in the Andaman Sea between India and Thailand. Now the focus has shifted decisively to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean, 2,500 kilometres south-west of Perth, where Australian, Chinese and French satellite imagery showed what appear to be large pieces of floating debris belonging to the plane.

International aviation authorities will now focus on locating the black boxes—the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder—which will be key to the investigations into what happened to the passenger jet. The Malaysian authorities have now finally come around to the theory that the plane suddenly changed direction and turned back, initially flying over the Malacca Straits. They now admit that their radars had data that showed that the plane had taken a sudden turn and gone in a southward direction. Malaysian officials say that they could only definitively decipher the data after consulting with their American counterparts. Analysts say that in the process precious time was wasted in the search operations.

Most experts have warned that even if parts of the plane are found, finding the main body of the plane could take many years. The sea in the present search area is around 4 km deep, with waves currently reaching the height of 6 metres.

This air accident is similar to the disappearance of Air France Flight 447 in June 2009. The plane, an Airbus A330-220 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean. It took three years for the mystery of the missing Air France plane to be solved. The plane had stalled in mid-air and plunged into the ocean because of pilot error. Statistics have shown that more than 50 per cent of fatal air crashes are due to pilot error. Aviation experts are divided in their opinion on what could have led to the crash of MH370. Many have concluded that a “calamitous engine failure” an hour or so after the plane departed from Kuala Lumpur and entered Vietnamese air space led to the plane going off course, while others have not ruled out a human hand in the crash.

More than 150 of the 239 passengers on board the plane were Chinese nationals, five were Indians, and there were nationals of 12 more countries. The Chinese authorities did background checks of their nationals and cleared them of links to terrorism. On March 1, Uighur extremists killed 29 people in a gruesome terror attack in the Chinese city of Kunming. The initial fears of Uighur extremist involvement in the disappearance of the plane have now been ruled out. There was one Chinese national of Uighur ethnicity on the flight. Two young Iranian nationals travelling on fake passports were also given clean chits.

The needle of suspicion continues to point to the pilot, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and the co-pilot, 27-year-old Fariq Abdul Hamid. As the investigations go on, conspiracy theories are growing by the day. Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who concurrently holds the transport portfolio, had initially told the media that data had been deleted from the flight simulator the pilot had kept in his home. This statement raised eyebrows. Before that, the Malaysian Prime Minister had suggested that someone had deliberately diverted the plane one hour after take-off. Hishammuddin in one of his many briefings to the media had confirmed that two satellite communications systems in the plane were also deliberately switched off. The Malaysian police are continuing with their investigations of the two pilots.

Zaharie was an experienced pilot. Leaders of Malaysia’s opposition were critical of the Defence Minister’s remarks, saying that he was imputing motives to a man who was not in a position to defend himself. Zaharie was related to the daughter-in-law of the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Ibrahim was recently sentenced to another five-year jail term on sodomy charges, which many Malaysians view as being trumped up. He is currently free on bail pending an appeal. Zaharie was openly sympathetic to the opposition. Malaysia today is politically polarised down the middle. In the elections last year, the opposition won the majority of the popular votes but got fewer votes than the ruling United Malays National Organisation, which has monopolised power since the country became independent.

Mike Glynn, a member of the Australian and International Pilots Association, said that “pilot suicide” is the most likely cause for the disappearance of Flight 370. “A pilot rather than a hijacker is more likely to be able to switch off the communications equipment,” he told the media. There are two well-publicised incidents of this kind. A SilkAir crash during a flight from Singapore to Jakarta in 1997 and an EgyptAir flight from Los Angeles to Cairo in 1999 were blamed on pilot suicide. In the 1999 crash, the co-pilot deliberately plunged the plane into the Atlantic Ocean. Investigators from the United States concluded that the co-pilot, after finding himself alone in the cockpit, switched off the autopilot and pointed the plane down while repeating the sentence “I rely on God” 11 times. The last communication from the Malaysian plane was from the co-pilot. His last words were “All right. Good Night”. Mozambican officials are still investigating a plane crash that killed 33 people last November. Preliminary investigations blame the pilot for deliberately bringing down the plane.

The Chinese authorities are treating the incident as a national calamity. Distraught families, almost all of whom have lost an only son or daughter, have been waiting for definitive answers from the Malaysian authorities. The general consensus is that the Malaysian officials, who are dealing with an aviation disaster of this scale for the first time, have not measured up. There has been a lot of criticism in the Chinese and international media of their disaster management capabilities.

However, the Chinese Ambassador to the country, Huang Huikang, diplomatically stated that the Malaysian authorities had done their best but they had “insufficient capabilities, technologies and experiences in dealing with the MH370 incident”. China has put a lot of its resources into the search mission. A Chinese warship and an icebreaker, “the Sea Dragon”, have reached the remote Indian Ocean area where the floating debris was seen. China has reason to feel slighted at the attitude adopted by Malaysian authorities, who have preferred to depend more on the U.S. for technical help and military expertise. The U.S. took its time to respond to Malaysia’s plea to share information gathered in Pine Gap, America’s top intelligence-gathering base in Australia. Hishammuddin had said that the U.S. had the best capability to locate the plane using its radar and satellite systems. The Barack Obama administration was instead keener to rush agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to Kuala Lumpur.

India did not accede to China’s request to be allowed to send its ships and planes into Indian territorial waters for the initial search-and-rescue mission in the Andaman Sea. Australia, a staunch member of the Western military alliance, on the other hand, has allowed Chinese military planes to operate from its bases. Ian Storey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told the Reuters news agency that there was still a lot of distrust among countries in the region. “Countries are unwilling to share sensitive intelligence because it reveals their military capabilities—or lack of capabilities,” he said. The Wall Street Journal reported that Indian officials “gave conflicting comments” on “whether radar systems in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were operational” on March 8. The Malaysian Defence Minster showed his unhappiness with the level of cooperation he was receiving in the initial stages. He said that his country had “put aside national security” and urged other countries “to decide on what sort of military and other data they are willing to share with us”. If there had been more coordination, the location of the wreckage could have been identified much earlier and the pain and agony of the next of kin of those on the missing plane could have been alleviated to an extent.