Did Thailand track missing jet?

CHRIS BRUMMITT AND THANYARAT DOKSONE
Last updated 10:05 19/03/2014

Focus is intensifying on pilots as Chinese officials say none of their citizens could have been involved in foul play. Jennifer Davis reports.

MH370
Reuters Zoom
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.
Mh370
MCT
A graphic shows what is known about missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which has been missing since March 8. | Click here for full-size graphic

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Ten days after a Malaysian jetliner disappeared, Thailand's military says it saw radar blips that might have been from the missing plane but didn't report it "because we did not pay attention to it".

Search crews from 26 countries, including Thailand, were looking for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which vanished early March 8 with 239 people aboard, including two New Zealanders,  en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Frustration was growing among relatives of those on the plane at the lack of progress in the search.

Aircraft and ships were today scouring two giant arcs of territory amounting to the size of Australia - half of it in the remote seas of the southern Indian Ocean.

Commander William Marks, a spokesman for the US 7th Fleet, said finding the plane was like trying to locate a few people somewhere between New York and California.

Early in the search, Malaysian officials said they suspected the plane backtracked toward the Strait of Malacca, just west of Malaysia. But it took a week for them to confirm Malaysian military radar data suggesting that route.

Thai military officials said on Tuesday (local time) their own radar showed an unidentified plane, possibly flight MH370, flying toward the strait beginning minutes after the Malaysian jet's transponder signal was lost.

Air force spokesman Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn said the Thai military didn't know whether the plane it detected was flight 370.

Thailand's failure to quickly share possible information about the plane might not substantially change what Malaysian officials now know, but it raised questions about the degree to which some countries were sharing their defence data.

Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12.40am on March 8 and its transponder, which allowed air traffic controllers to identify and track it, ceased communicating at 1.20am.

Suchookorn said that at 1.28am, Thai military radar "was able to detect a signal, which was not a normal signal, of a plane flying in the direction opposite from the MH370 plane", back toward Kuala Lumpur. The plane later turned right, toward Butterworth, a Malaysian city along the Strait of Malacca. The radar signal was infrequent and did not include data such as the flight number.

When asked why it took so long to release the information, Suchookorn said: "Because we did not pay any attention to it. The Royal Thai Air Force only looks after any threats against our country."

He said the plane never entered Thai airspace and that Malaysia's initial request for information in the early days of the search was not specific.

"When they asked again and there was new information and assumptions from (Malaysian) Prime Minister Najib Razak, we took a look at our information again," Suchookorn said.

"It didn't take long for us to figure out, although it did take some experts to find out about it."

The search area for the plane initially focused on the South China Sea. Pings that a satellite detected from the plane hours after its communications went down eventually led authorities to concentrate instead on two vast arcs - one into Central Asia and the other into the Indian Ocean.

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Malaysia said over the weekend the loss of communications and change in the aircraft's course were deliberate acts by a person on board.

Malaysian police were considering the possibility of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board, but were yet to say what they had uncovered.

Investigators had pointed to a sequence of events in which two communications systems were disabled in succession - one of them before a voice from the cockpit gave an all-clear message to ground controllers - as evidence of a deliberate attempt to fly the plane off-course in a hard-to-detect way. On Monday, they backtracked on the timing of the first switch-off, saying it was possible that both were cut around the same time, leading to new speculation that some kind of sudden mechanical or electrical failure might explain the flight going off-course.

Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said some sort of problem aboard the plane was not out of the question, although he noted it still was intact enough to send a signal to a satellite several hours later.

As further confirmation that someone was still guiding the plane after it disappeared from civilian radar, airline pilots and aviation safety experts said an onboard computer called the flight management system would have to be deliberately programmed in order to follow the route taken by the plane as described by Malaysian authorities.

"If you are going to fly the airplane to a waypoint that is not a straight ... route to Beijing, and you were going to command the flight management computer and the autopilot system, you really have to know how to fly the airplane," said John Gadzinski, a US Boeing 737 captain.

"If you were a basic flight student and I put you in an airborne 777 and gave you 20 minutes of coaching, I could have you turn the airplane left and right and the auto throttle and the autopilot would make the airplane do what you want," he said, "but to programme a waypoint into the flight management computer, if that is what they flew over, is a little bit harder."

Investigators have asked security agencies in countries with passengers on board to carry out background checks.

China said background checks of the 154 Chinese citizens on board turned up no links to terrorism, apparently ruling out the possibility that Uighur Muslim militants who have been blamed for terror attacks within China might have been involved in the disappearance.

"So far there is nothing, no evidence to suggest that they intended to do harm to the plane," said Huang Huikang, China's ambassador to Malaysia.

A Chinese civilian aviation official has said there was no sign of the plane entering the country's airspace on commercial radar.

A group of relatives of Chinese passengers in Beijing said they decided to begin a hunger strike to express their anger over the handling of the investigation.

One relative displayed a sign reading: "Hunger strike protest. Respect life. Return my relative. Don't want become victim of politics, Tell the truth."

The search for the aircraft is among the largest in aviation history.

The US Navy said P-3 and P-8 surveillance aircraft were methodically sweeping over swathes of ocean, known as "mowing the grass," while using radar to detect any debris in the water and high-resolution cameras to snap images.

Australian and Indonesian planes and ships were searching waters to the south of Indonesia's Sumatra Island all the way down to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

Huang said China had begun searching for the plane in its territory, but gave no details. When asked at a Foreign Ministry briefing in Beijing what this search involved, ministry spokesman Hong Lei said only that satellites and radar were being used.

China also was sending ships to the Indian Ocean, where they will search 300,000 square kilometres of sea.

The area being covered by the Australians was even bigger - 600,000 square kilometres - and will take weeks, said John Young, manager of Australian Maritime Safety Authority's emergency response division.

"This search will be difficult. The sheer size of the search area poses a huge challenge," Young said.

"A needle in a haystack remains a good analogy."

CALL FROM BRITAIN

British Prime Minister David Cameron telephoned his Malaysian counterpart Tuesday (NZT Wednesday) to offer the UK's help in the first direct contact between the two since the flight disappeared, according to Downing Street.

Cameron did not offer specifics on what particular military or civilian assistance could be provided, the prime minister's spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, said.

"It was very much inviting any specific requests from the Malaysians," Gray said.

"Prime Minister Najib said he would think about that and let us know if they have any specific requests."

- AP

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