How could flight MH370 disappear?

03:21, Mar 10 2014
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Journalists attempt to interview a woman who is the relative of a passenger on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, as she crouches on the floor crying, at the Beijing Capital International Airport.
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A relative of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries, surrounded by journalists, at the Beijing Capital International Airport on March 8, 2014.
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The Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew lost contact with air traffic controllers early on Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the airline said in a statement.
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An aerial view of an oil spill is seen from a Vietnamese Air Force aircraft in the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, 250 km from Vietnam and 190 km from Malaysia, in this handout photo from Thanh Nien Newpaper taken on March 8.
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A spokesman (centre) of Malaysia Airlines is surrounded by journalists as he gives a briefing about Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at a hotel in Beijing March 8, 2014.
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A relative (front) of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as she walks past journalists at a hotel in Beijing March 9, 2014. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER aircraft carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew was presumed to have crashed off the Vietnamese coast on Saturday.
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Malaysia Airlines Commercial Director Hugh Dunleavy (centre) speaks to journalists about information of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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Vietnamese Air Force officers sit in the cockpit of a search and rescue aircraft as they fly over the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
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Volunteer rescue workers and religious organisations pray during multi-religion mass prayers for the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang.
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A view of oil slicks (pale line near the bottom right) spotted in an area of the South China Sea about 100 nautical miles (185 km) from Tok Bali Beach in Malaysia's Kelantan state.
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Admiral Datuk Mohd Amdan Kurish, Director General of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, looks at a radar screen while searching for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane in the South China Sea.
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A relative (left) of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is escorted by a caregiver from Malaysia Airlines as they walk in a corridor at a hotel in Beijing.
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Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik applies the final touches to a sand art sculpture he created wishing for the well being of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, on a beach in Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
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Life vests and lifesavers are seen onboard a Vietnam Air Force search and rescue aircraft on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Tho Chu island.
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Journalists place their recorders as they get ready for the first briefing of the day at a news conference at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on March 10.
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Relatives of a passenger onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cry inside a hotel they are staying, in Putrajaya. China has urged Malaysia to step up the search for the jetliner that went missing with 239 people on board, about two-thirds of them Chinese, and said it has sent security agents to help with an investigation into the misuse of passports.
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An officer looks out of a helicopter during a mission to find the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, near Tho Chu Island.
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A map of a flight plan is seen on a computer screen during a meeting before a mission to find the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, at Phu Quoc Airport.
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A woman stands in front of a giant screen showing the number hours since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing, in Beijing on March 10.
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A family member of a passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 waits for news at Lido Hotel on March 10, in Beijing, China. Investigative teams continue to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the 293 passengers that were travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
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Dato' Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation briefs the media over latest updates on missing Malaysia Airline MH370 on March 10, in Kuala Lumpur.
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Clouds hover outside the window of a Vietnam Air Force search and rescue aircraft An-26 on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Vietnam's Tho Chu island.
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People believed to be relatives of passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 are escorted to the VIP section of the Beijing Capital International Airport prior to flying to Kuala Lumpur.
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A Chinese relative of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines MH370 is comforted by a staff member of the airport as she shields her face from journalists at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
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A combination photo shows two men whom police said were travelling on stolen passports onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane.
Military personnel look out of a Singapore Air Force plane during the search
Military personnel look out of a Singapore Air Force plane during the search.
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Malaysia's police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar, addresses a news conference.
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Students from an international school in east China city Zhuji pray for the passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Family members of missing passengers leave a meeting in a Beijing Hotel.
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MESSAGE OF HOPE: A Vietnamese tourist writes a message of hope for missing passengers and crew.
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MESSAGES FOR THE MISSING: Tying a message of hope on a message board for passengers and crew.
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A relative of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 answers media questions at Lido Hotel.
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A charity worker comforts an emotional relative of a passenger.
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Indian sand artist Sudarshan Pattnaik works on a sand sculpture of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at golden beach at Puri in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
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Satellite images reveal a possible crash site for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, where three large objects were seen in the water.
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An object sits in the water in satellite imagery released by China.
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The zone where the mystery objects were found.
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What appears to be fuel sits on the water in the area where three large objects were found.
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A crew member from the Royal Malaysian Air Force looks through the window of a Malaysian Air Force CN235 aircraft during a Search and Rescue operation to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Kidd and USS Pinckney are seen en transit in the Pacific Ocean in this US Navy picture taken May 18, 2011. Kidd and Pinkney have been searching for the missing Malaysian airliner and are being re-deployed to the Strait of Malacca off Malaysia's west coast as new search areas are opened in the Indian Ocean.
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Students watch as a group of artists put the finishing touches to a three dimensional artwork at a school in Makati city, metro Manila. According to the artists, the artwork is their way of expressing sympathy towards the relatives of passengers onboard the missing Boeing 777-200ER.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows two maps with corridors of the last known possible location of the missing plane.
Selamat Omar shows a picture of his son, flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat
Selamat Omar shows a picture of his son, flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat who was onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers who were travelling onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 watch a television displaying a Malaysian press conference at Lido Hotel in Beijing.
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A family member of a passenger onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as he watches a message board dedicated to passengers.
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Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
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Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
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A still image taken from video shows an image of an object spotted in the southern Indian Ocean by the Gaofen-1 high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite of CNSA.
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Pilot Dave Smith (R) gives a pre-flight briefing aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft before taking off to search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, at RAAF base Pearce near Perth, March 22, 2014.
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Family members of passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 raise their fists as they shout "return our families" to protest against the lack of new information after a routine briefing given by Malaysia's government and military representatives at Lido Hotel in Beijing March 22, 2014.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds up a note that he has just received on a new lead in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, during a news conference at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 22, 2014.
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Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (bottom C) takes part in a special prayer for passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin mosque in Putrajaya March 21, 2014.
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A woman writes on a banner of well wishes for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 14, 2014.
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A family member of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 covers her face as she cries after a routine briefing given by Malaysia Airlines at Lido Hotel in Beijing, March 22, 2014.
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A girl reads some of the messages of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur March 22, 2014.
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A crew member aboard a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion uses binoculars as it flies over the southern Indian Ocean during the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 March 22, 2014.
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A woman writes another message of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur March 22, 2014.
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Map of the southern Indian Ocean locating site where a satellite may have found debris related to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; includes satellite images of possible debris. MCT
Search for MH370
Solid matter is pictured floating in the southern Indian Ocean seen from a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
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INDIAN OCEAN - This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the planned search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 24, 2014.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds satellite images as he speaks about the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 26.
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A satellite photo, showing the locations and co-ordinates of unknown objects reported by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) in the Indian Ocean. The images were taken on March 23 and released on March 26.
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A satellite photo, showing the location of unknown objects reported by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) in the Indian Ocean. The images were taken on March 23 and released on March 26.

The most dangerous parts of a flight are takeoff and landing. Rarely do incidents happen when a plane is cruising 11 kilometres above the earth.

So the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jet well into its flight on Saturday morning over the South China Sea has led aviation experts to assume that whatever happened was quick and left the pilots no time to place a distress call.

It could take investigators months, if not years, to determine what happened to the Boeing 777 flying from Malaysia's largest city of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"At this early stage, we're focusing on the facts that we don't know," said Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing who worked on its 777 wide-body jets and is now director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.

Military radar indicates that the missing Boeing 777 jet may have turned back before vanishing, Malaysia's air force chief said Sunday as authorities were investigating up to four passengers with suspicious identifications. The revelations add to the mystery surrounding the final minutes of the flight. Air force chief Rodzali Daud didn't say which direction the plane veered when it apparently went off course, or how long it flew in that direction, Some of the information it had was also corroborated by civilian radar, he said.

If the information about the U-turn is accurate, that lessens the probability that the plane suffered a catastrophic explosion but raises further questions about why the pilots didn't signal for help. If there was a minor mechanical failure - or even something more serious like the shutdown of both of the plane's engines - the pilots likely would have had time to radio for help. The lack of a call "suggests something very sudden and very violent happened", said William Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

It's possible that there was either an abrupt breakup of the plane or something that led it into a quick, steep dive. Some experts even suggested an act of terrorism or a pilot purposely crashing the jet.

"Either you had a catastrophic event that tore the airplane apart, or you had a criminal act," said Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co. "It was so quick and they didn't radio."

No matter how unlikely a scenario, it's too early to rule out any possibilities, experts warn. The best clues will come with the recovery of the flight data and voice recorders and an examination of the wreckage. US investigators from the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration and experts from Boeing were heading to Asia to assist in the investigation.

A massive international sea search has so far turned up no confirmed trace of the jet, though Vietnamese authorities said late Sunday that a low-flying plane had spotted a rectangular object in waters about 90 kilometres south of Tho Chu island, in the same area where oil slicks were spotted Saturday. The state-run Thanh Nien newspaper said, citing the deputy chief of staff of Vietnam's army that searchers had spotted what appeared to be one of the plane's doors.

Airplane crashes typically occur during takeoff and the climb away from an airport, or while coming in for a landing, as in last year's fatal crash of an Asiana Airlines jet in San Francisco. Just 9 per cent of fatal accidents happen when a plane is at cruising altitude, according to a statistical summary of commercial jet airplane accidents done by Boeing.

Captain John M Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, said that whatever happened to the Malaysia Airlines jet, it occurred quickly. The problem had to be big enough, he said, to stop the plane's transponder from broadcasting its location, although the transponder can be purposely shut off from the cockpit.

One of the first indicators of what happened will be the size of the debris field. If it is large and spread out over tens of miles, then the plane likely broke apart at a high elevation. That could signal a bomb or a massive airframe failure. If it is a smaller field, the plane probably fell from 35,000 feet (10,500 metres) intact, breaking up upon contact with the water.

"We know the airplane is down. Beyond that, we don't know a whole lot," Cox said.

The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records in aviation history. It first carried passengers in June 1995 and went 18 years without a fatal accident. That streak came to an end with the July 2013 Asiana crash. Three of the 307 people aboard that flight died. Saturday's Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 239 passengers and crew would only be the second fatal incident for the aircraft type.

"It's one of the most reliable airplanes ever built," said John Goglia, a former member of the US National Transportation Safety Board.

Some of the possible causes for the plane disappearing include:

A CATASTROPHIC STRUCTURAL FAILURE

Most aircraft are made of aluminium which is susceptible to corrosion over time, especially in areas of high humidity. But given the plane's long history and impressive safety record, experts suggest that a failure of the airframe, or the plane's Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines, is unlikely.

More of a threat to the plane's integrity is the constant pressurisation and depressurisation of the cabin for takeoff and landing. In April 2011, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 made an emergency landing shortly after takeoff from Phoenix after the plane's fuselage ruptured, causing a 1.5m tear. The plane, with 118 people on board, landed safely. But such a rupture is less likely in this case. Airlines fly the 777 on longer distances, with many fewer takeoffs and landings, putting less stress on the airframe.

"It's not like this was Southwest Airlines doing 10 flights a day," Hamilton said. "There's nothing to suggest there would be any fatigue issues."

BAD WEATHER

Planes are designed to fly through most severe storms. However, in June 2009, an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed during a bad storm over the Atlantic Ocean. Ice built up on the Airbus A330's airspeed indicators, giving false readings. That, and bad decisions by the pilots, led the plane into a stall causing it to plummet into the sea. All 228 passengers and crew aboard died. The pilots never radioed for help.

In the case of Saturday's Malaysia Airlines flight, all indications show that there were clear skies.

PILOT DISORIENTATION

Curtis said that the pilots could have taken the plane off autopilot and somehow went off course and didn't realise it until it was too late. The plane could have flown for another five or six hours from its point of last contact, putting it up to 4800km away. This is unlikely given that the plane probably would have been picked up by radar somewhere. But it's too early to eliminate it as a possibility.

FAILURE OF BOTH ENGINES

In January 2008, a British Airways 777 crashed about 300m short of the runway at London's Heathrow Airport. As the plane was coming in to land, the engines lost thrust because of ice buildup in the fuel system. There were no fatalities.

Loss of both engines is possible in this case, but Hamilton said the plane could glide for up to 20 minutes, giving pilots plenty of time to make an emergency call. When a US Airways A320 lost both of its engines in January 2009 after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York it was at a much lower elevation. But Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger still had plenty of communications with air traffic controllers before ending the six-minute flight in the Hudson River.

A BOMB

Several planes have been brought down including Pan Am Flight 103 between London and New York in December 1988. There was also an Air India flight in June 1985 between Montreal and London and a plane in September 1989 flown by French airline Union des Transports Ariens which blew up over the Sahara.

HIJACKING

A traditional hijacking seems unlikely given that a plane's captors typically land at an airport and have some type of demand. But a 9/11-like hijacking is possible, with terrorists forcing the plane into the ocean.

PILOT SUICIDE

There were two large jet crashes in the late 1990s - a SilkAir flight and an EgyptAir flight- that are believed to have been caused by pilots deliberately crashing the planes. Government crash investigators never formally declared the crashes suicides but both are widely acknowledged by crash experts to have been caused by deliberate pilot actions.

ACCIDENTAL SHOOT-DOWN

There have been incidents when a country's military unintentionally shot down civilian aircraft. In July 1988, the United States Navy missile cruiser USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iran Air flight, killing all 290 passengers and crew. In September 1983, a Korean Air Lines flight was shot down by a Russian fighter jet.

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AP