April 27, 2014

The Disappearance of Flight MH 370

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE formal announcement by the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, that the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370 has in all likelihood crashed in the Indian Ocean south 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 has based its conclusions on the new satellite data provided by the British company Inmarsat that has conclusively shown the last position of the plane in the southern Indian Ocean. Many of the relatives of the Chinese passengers who were 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. MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE, SLOW/ MISLEADING INFORMATION In the fortnight after the disappearance of the plane on March 7, close kin of the missing passengers were already distraught with the slow flow of information and sometimes misleading information, given out by the Malaysian authorities. Relatives and friends of those who perished led an angry demonstration in front of the Malaysian embassy in Beijing, after the loss of the aircraft was officially announced. The Chinese authorities had to use force to stop the protestors from entering the Malaysian 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.” Rescue teams led by the US and Australia are now combing a narrow corridor in the ocean floor where beeps from the “black box” were heard in the first week of April. The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 could end up as one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our times. The navies and air forces of the major countries have been helping the Malaysian government in locating the missing plane since the plane disappeared from the radar screens in the early hours of March 7. Initially, intensive search operations were conducted in the Andaman Sea between India and Thailand, based on the preliminary information provided by the Malaysian authorities. Now the focus has shifted decisively to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean. Australian, Chinese and French satellite imagery have in the last week of March shown what appeared to be large pieces of floating debris belonging to the plane in the remote southern reaches of the Indian Ocean, 2500 km south of the Australian city of Perth. International aviation authorities will now focus on locating the “black boxes” --- the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, which will be the key to the investigations surrounding the mysterious disappearance of the passenger jet which was on a scheduled direct flight from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Malaysian authorities have now finally come around to the theory that the plane suddenly changed its direction and turned back, initially flying over the Malacca straits. Malaysian authorities 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 definitively decipher the data only after consulting with their American counterparts. Analysts say that in the process precious time was wasted in the search operations. Now most experts have warned that even if parts of the plane are found, finding the main body of the plane could even take many years. The sea in the area is around four km deep with waves currently reaching the height of 20 feet. The air accident that has close similarity with the missing Malaysian plane is the disappearance of Air France Flight 447 in June 2009. The plane was an Airbus A330-220 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, and it 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 due to pilot error and plunged into the ocean. Statistics have shown that more than 50 percent of fatal air crashes are due to pilot errors. Aviation experts are divided in their opinions on the actual causes that could have led to the crash of the Boeing 777. Many have concluded that a “calamitous engine failure” an hour or so after the plane departed from Kuala Lumpur and entered the Vietnamese air space, led to plane going off-course. Other experts are not yet ruling out a human hand in the crash. CONSPIRACY THEORIES GROWING More than 150 of the 239 passengers on board the ill fated plane were Chinese nationals. There were five Indians along with nationals from 13 more countries. Background checks done by Chinese authorities have cleared their nationals from terrorism links. There was a gruesome terror attack mounted by Uighur extremists in the Chinese city of Kunming on March 1 that killed 29 people. The initials fears of Uighur extremist involvement in the disappearance of the plane has now been ruled out. There was one Chinese national of Uighur ethnicity on the ill fated flight. The two young Iranian nationals travelling on fake passports have also been given clean chits. The needle of suspicion continues to be on the pilot and the co-pilot. As the investigations go on, conspiracy theories are growing by the day. The Malaysian defence minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, had initially told the media that data had been deleted from flight simulator, the pilot of the ill fated plane, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had kept in his home. This statement by the minister, who is concurrently holding the transport portfolio, raised eye brows. Before that, the Malaysian prime minister had suggested that someone had deliberately diverted the plane one hour after takeoff. 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. Malaysian police are continuing with their investigations of the two pilots. An Australian pilot, Mike Glynn, a member of the International Pilots Association, has opined 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 have been two well publicised incidents of the kind. A Silk Air crash during a flight from Singapore to Jakarta in 1997 and an Egypt Air flight from Los Angeles to Cairo in 1999 were blamed on pilot suicides. In the 1999 crash, the co-pilot had deliberately plunged the plane into the Atlantic Ocean. US investigators concluded that the co-pilot, after finding himself alone in the cockpit, switched off the auto pilot and pointed the plane down while repeating “I rely on god” eleven times. The last communication from the Malaysian plane was from the co-pilot, 27 years old Fariq Abdul Hamid. His last words were “All right. Good Night.” Mozambican officials are still investigating a plane crash that killed 33 people in November last. Preliminary investigations have blamed the pilot for deliberately bringing down the plane. However, the 53 years old 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. Shah was related to the daughter in law of the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Ibrahim has been 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. Zahari was openly sympathetic with the opposition. Malaysia today is politically polarised down the middle. In the elections last year, the opposition won a majority of the popular votes but got fewer seats than the ruling UMNO that has monopolised power since the country became independent. LACK OF COORDINATION AMONG LITTORAL COUNTRIES The Chinese authorities are treating the incident as a national calamity. Distraught families, almost all of them having lost their only son or daughter, have been waiting for definitive answers from the Malaysian authorities. The general consensus is that the Malaysian officials who for the first time were dealing with an aviation disaster of this scale, did not measure up to the task of dealing with the aftermath. There has been a lot of criticism of their disaster management capabilities in the Chinese and international media. However, the Chinese ambassador to the country, Huang Huikang has diplomatically stated that the Malaysian authorities did their best but they had “insufficient capabilities, technologies and experiences in dealing with the MH370 incident.” China has already put in a lot of its resources in the search mission. A Chinese warship and an ice breaker “the Sea Dragon” have reached the remote Indian Ocean area where the floating debris was seen. Beijing has reasons to feel slighted at the attitude adopted by Malaysian authorities who have preferred to depend more on the United States for technical help and military expertise. Washington took its time in responding to Malaysia’s plea for sharing information gathered in Pine Gap, America’s top intelligence gathering base in Australia. Hishammuddin had said that the US had the best capability to locate the plane using its radar and satellite systems. The Obama administration was, instead, keener to rush in FBI agents to Kuala Lumpur. India did not accede to Beijing’s request for sending in 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, has on the other hand allowed Chinese military planes to operate from its bases. Ian Storey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told the news agency Reuters that there still is 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 or not their radar systems in Andaman and Nicobar islands were operational” on March 8. The Malaysian defence minster openly showed his unhappiness with the level of cooperation he was receiving in the initials 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 was more coordination, the location of the wreckage could have identified much earlier and the pain and the agony for the next of kin on the missing plane, alleviated to an extent.