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The Malaysia Airlines jet: What we know and what we don't

The Malaysian Air Force has traced the last known location of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 to Pulau Perak, a very small island in the Straits of Malacca, according to a senior Malaysian Air Force official.
Credit: CNN

Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: What we know and don't know
By Jethro Mullen

CNN

(CNN) -- As the search for a missing Malaysia Airlines jet entered a fifth day Wednesday, investigators remained uncertain about its whereabouts.

Here's a summary of what we know and what we don't know about Flight 370, which was carrying 239 people when it disappeared from radar screens over Southeast Asia.

THE FLIGHT PATH

What we know: The Boeing 777-200ER took off from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, at 12:41 a.m. Saturday (12:41 p.m. Friday ET). It was scheduled to arrive in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. the same day, after a roughly 2,700-mile (4,350-kilometer) journey. But around 1:30 a.m., air traffic controllers in Subang, outside Kuala Lumpur, lost contact with the plane over the sea between Malaysia and Vietnam.

What we don't know: What happened next. The pilots did not indicate any problem to the tower, and no distress signal was issued. Malaysian military officials cite radar data as suggesting the plane might have turned back toward Kuala Lumpur. But the pilots didn't tell air traffic control that they were doing so.

A senior Malaysian air force official said Tuesday that the plane traveled hundreds of miles off course, moving in the opposite direction from its original destination, and had stopped sending identifying transponder codes before it disappeared.

We don't know why the plane would have turned around. While one expert tells CNN the plane's deviation could mean someone deliberately turned the plane around, another expert says power failure could have disrupted the main transponder and its backup, and the plane could have flown for more than an hour.

THE PASSENGERS

What we know: There were 239 people on board: 227 passengers and 12 crew members. Five of the passengers were younger than 5 years old. Those on board included a number of painters and calligraphers, as well as employees of an American semiconductor company.

According to the airline, the passengers' 14 nationalities spanned the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and North America. Passengers from China or Taiwan numbered 154, followed by Malaysians, at 38. There were three U.S. citizens on the plane. Four passengers had valid booking to travel but did not show up for the flight, according to the airline. "As such, the issue of off-loading unaccompanied baggage did not arise," it added Tuesday in a prepared statement.

What we don't know: Whether any of the passengers had anything to do with the plane's disappearance.

THE PASSPORT MYSTERY

What we know: Two passengers boarded the plane using stolen passports. Authorities have identified them as Pouri Nourmohammadi, 18, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, both Iranians. Malaysian police believe Nourmohammadi was trying to emigrate to Germany using the stolen Austrian passport. The men entered Malaysia on February 28 using valid Iranian passports, according to Interpol.

The use of the stolen passports had raised concern that the people who used them might be involved in the plane's disappearance. But officials have said they think it is unlikely the Iranian men had links to terrorist groups. Malaysian police said Nourmohammadi's mother contacted them after her son didn't arrive in Frankfurt as expected.

"The more information we get, the more we're inclined to conclude that it was not a terrorist incident," Ronald Noble, the secretary general of the international police organization Interpol, said Tuesday.

What we don't know: More details about the two men, particularly Reza. Would-be immigrants have used fake passports to try to enter Western countries in the past.

THE SECURITY SCREENING

What we know: Interpol says the passports were listed as stolen in its database. But they had not been checked from the time they were entered into the database and the time the plane departed. Noble said it was "clearly of great concern" that passengers had been able to board an international flight using passports listed as stolen in the agency's database.

What we don't know: Whether the passports had been used to travel previously. Interpol says it's "unable to determine on how many other occasions these passports were used to board flights or cross borders." Malaysian authorities are investigating the security process at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, but insisted it meets international standards.

THE CREW

What we know: The crew members are Malaysian. The pilot is Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a 53-year-old veteran with 18,365 flying hours who joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981. The first officer, Fariq Ab Hamid, has 2,763 flying hours. Hamid, 27, started at the airline in 2007. He had been flying another jet and was transitioning to the Boeing 777-200 after having completed training in a flight simulator.

What we don't know: What went on in the cockpit around the time the plane lost contact with air traffic controllers. The passenger jet was in what is considered the safest part of a flight, the cruise portion, when it disappeared. The weather conditions were reported to be good. Aviation experts say it's particularly puzzling that the pilots didn't report any kind of problems before contact was lost.

THE SEARCH

What we know: Dozens of ships and planes from various countries have been scouring the South China Sea near where the plane was last detected. Debris in the area has turned out to be unrelated to the plane. "We have not found anything that appear to be objects from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft," Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Malaysian Civil Aviation Department, said Monday. Similarly, a slick in the area was determined to be from fuel oil typically used in cargo ships, not from the plane.

What we don't know: Whether the search is concentrating on the right place. Authorities initially focused their efforts around the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand, near the plane's last known position. But they have expanded efforts westward, off the other coast of the Malay Peninsula, and northward into the Andaman Sea, part of the Indian Ocean.

THE CAUSE

What we know: Nothing. "For the aircraft to go missing just like that ... as far as we are concerned, we are equally puzzled as well," Rahman said Monday. The aircraft model in question, the Boeing 777-200ER, has an excellent safety record.

What we don't know: Until searchers find the plane and its voice and data recorders, it may be difficult to figure out what happened. CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen says the range of possible reasons behind the disappearance can be divided into three categories: mechanical failure, pilot actions and terrorism. But all we have are theories.

THE PRECEDENT

What we know: It's rare, but not unprecedented, for a commercial airliner to disappear in midflight. In June 2009, Air France Flight 447 was en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when communications ended suddenly from the Airbus A330, another state-of-the-art aircraft, with 228 people on board. It took five days to locate the first piece of debris from that plane -- and nearly two years to find the bulk of Flight 447's wreckage and most of the bodies in a mountain range deep in the Atlantic Ocean. It took even longer to establish the cause of the disaster.

What we don't know: Whether what happened to the missing Malaysia Airlines plane is similar to what happened to the Air France flight. Investigators attributed the Flight 447 crash to a series of errors by the pilots and their failure to react effectively to technical problems.

CNN's Tom Watkins and Steven Jiang contributed to this report.

Malaysia widens search for missing plane
CHRIS BRUMMITT, Associated Press
JIM GOMEZ, Associated Press


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian authorities expanded their search for the missing jetliner into the Andaman Sea and beyond on Thursday after saying it could have flown for several hours after its last contact with the ground.

That scenario would make finding the jetliner a vastly more difficult task, and raises the possibility that searchers are currently looking in the wrong place for the Boeing 777 and its 229 passengers and crew.

In the latest in a series of false leads, planes were sent Thursday to search an area where Chinese satellite images published on a Chinese government website reportedly showed three suspected floating objects off the southern tip of Vietnam.

They saw only ocean.

"There is nothing. We went there, there is nothing," said acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Compounding the frustration, he later said the Chinese Embassy had notified the government that the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

The plane was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday when it lost contact with ground controllers and civilian radar.

An international search effort is sweeping the South China Sea and also the Strait of Malacca because of unconfirmed military radar sightings that might indicate the plane changed course and headed west after its last contact.

The Wall Street Journal newspaper quoted U.S. investigators on Thursday as saying they suspected the plane remained in the air for about four hours after its last confirmed contact, citing data from the plane's engines that are automatically transmitted to the ground as part of a routine maintenance program.

Hishammuddin said the government had contacted Boeing and Rolls Royce, the engine manufacturer, and both said the last engine data was received at 1:07 a.m., around 23 minutes before the plane lost contact.

But asked if it were possible that the plane kept flying for several hours, Hishammuddin said: "Of course, we can't rule anything out. This is why we have extended the search."

He said the search had been widened into the Andaman Sea and Malaysia was asking for radar data from neighboring countries. India plans to deploy air and sea assets in the southern section of the sea, a senior official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Investigators have not ruled out any possible cause for the disappearance of the plane.

Experts say a massive failure knocking out its electrical systems, while unlikely, could explain why its transponders, which identify it to civilian radar systems and other planes nearby, were not working. Another possibility is that the pilot, or a passenger, likely one with some technical knowledge, switched off the transponders in the hope of flying undetected.

The jet had enough fuel to reach deep into the Indian Ocean.

Dozens of ships and aircraft from 12 nations have been searching the Gulf of Thailand and the strait, but no confirmed trace has been found. The search area has grown to 35,800 square miles (92,600 square kilometers), or about the size of Portugal.

Experts say that if the plane crashed into the ocean then some debris should be floating on the surface even if most of the jet is submerged. Past experience shows that finding the wreckage can take weeks or even longer, especially if the location of the plane is in doubt.

Malaysia's air force chief said Wednesday that an unidentified object appeared on military radar records about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of Penang, Malaysia, and experts are analyzing the data in an attempt to determine whether the blip is the missing plane.

From Wednesday:

Chico Harlan and Simon Denyer
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — As the search pressed on for a vanished Malaysian airliner, military officials said radar data showed that it inexplicably turned and headed toward the Malacca Strait, hundreds of miles off its scheduled flight path, news agencies and Malaysian media reported.

Malaysia's air force chief, Gen. Rodzali Daud, was quoted by the Malaysian newspaper Berita Harian as saying that the Boeing 777 jet was detected by military radar at 2:40 a.m. Saturday near Pulau Perak at the northern end of the strait, which separates the western side of the Malaysian peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

"After that, the signal from the plane was lost," he told the newspaper.

Military officials, speaking to both the Associated Press and Reuters, confirmed the air force chief's remarks. On Wednesday morning, however, he took them back, denying he had ever made such a statement.

The confusion about Malaysian military thinking came after four days of searching for the vanished jet and indicated a degree of chaos in the operation, which is being coordinated by Malaysia's civil aviation department. Separately, Malaysia Airlines said Tuesday that the plane could have been trying to turn back to Subang, an airport on the northern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Though search teams from 10 nations have combed both sides of the Malaysian peninsula for evidence of wreckage, authorities until now had indicated that the plane was likely in the Gulf of Thailand, where it disappeared from civilian radar shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing.

"If I was out there with a team, on a boat, working day and night, and then to have someone tell you, oh guess what, we don't think it's here after all. It might be 500 miles away. Wow," said David Gallo, director of special projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who co-led the successful search for Air France Flight 447, which vanished in 2009 over the Atlantic.

The reports that MH370 veered so far off course added a bizarre and confusing new element to a case that has baffled investigators. Some aviation experts said the search might need to be further expanded. Given the fuel it had, the plane could have made it as far as India.

In the latest signal of impatience from Beijing, Chinese military sent two additional aircraft to help with search Tuesday, and it deployed another three vessels, which are expected to arrive in the area by Wednesday morning, according to state-controlled Xinhua News Agency. Japan also said it would dispatch a disaster relief team.

Four days after the plane carrying 227 passengers vanished, investigators admitted they still were mystified by what happened on board. Malaysian authorities said they continued to look for signs of sabotage or hijacking but were also considering the possibility of psychological or personal problems among the passengers or crew.

They played down any connection between the plane's fate and two Iranian passengers who had boarded the aircraft with fake Austrian and Italian passports.

"The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it is not a terrorist incident," Ronald Noble, secretary general of the international police agency Interpol, told reporters.

But in Washington, CIA Director John Brennan said terrorism could not yet be ruled out, while stressing that authorities have reached no conclusions about what caused the plane's disappearance.

"It's still a mystery at this point," Brennan said after delivering a speech in Washington.

The Reuters news agency, citing an unidentified Malaysian military source, said military radar picked up the plane as it crossed the Malaysian peninsula in what were apparently its final minutes of flight. Malaysian media reported that some residents spotted a plane flying low, near the city of Kota Bharu.

If the reports were correct, it was unclear why many authorities didn't appear aware of the information earlier in the investigation. Authorities have consistently said that Flight MH370's transponder signal — which communicates with civil aviation radar — abruptly stopped at the time the plane was supposed to be entering Vietnamese air space. But military radar could have continued to track the aircraft.

If the plane dropped from a low altitude into the Malacca Strait, it might explain the lack of a major debris field. Malaysia Airlines said in a statement early Tuesday that the western coast of Malaysia was "now the focus" of the search. But a spokeswoman for the airline later said the wording was a mistake and that there was no emphasis on any location.

Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said searches were continuing "on both sides" of the peninsula.

The discovery of two passengers with fake documents had raised alarm that a terrorist attack might have brought down the plane. But authorities said Tuesday that the two Iranians carrying phony passports — Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29 — did not appear to be linked to any violent group. Both arrived in Malaysia the same day, Feb. 28, officials said.

At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Khalid Abu Bakar, inspector general of Malaysia's police, said that the 19-year-old was trying to migrate to Germany: His mother had been waiting for him in Frankfurt, then called Malaysian authorities when he did not show up. Interpol identified the other Iranian at a separate news conference, though his reasons for traveling were not immediately clear. While Malaysia might seem an odd stop for Middle Eastern men heading for Europe, it is relatively easy for Iranians to enter the country, and air tickets to reach the Southeast Asian country are fairly cheap.

Khalid said that Malaysia has been examining images of baggage, studying closed-circuit monitors for suspicious behavior at the airport terminal and trying to obtain photos and profiles of the passengers.

Search teams, meanwhile, battled wind and whitecaps while looking for any sign of debris from the vanished Malaysia Airlines flight, especially wreckage containing the plane's crucial cockpit recorders. The instruments usually emit tracking signals for about 30 days.

Whitecaps made it difficult Tuesday for search teams to spot wreckage — at least for the many crews working without radar technology. The United States is using both P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and helicopters that fly just 500 feet above the water and depend on crews to spot potential debris.

With the surveillance aircraft, "the software that goes with the radar is smart enough to cancel out those waves," Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, said in a phone interview from the Gulf of Thailand. "However, if you're just using your eyeballs, it is a significant challenge, because the water is not flat any more."

- - -

Denyer reported from Beijing. Washington Post staff writers Jason Rezaian in Tehran; William Branigin, Ashley Halsey and Greg Miller in Washington; William Wan in Beijing; and Post correspondents Liu Liu, Gu Jinglu and Xu Jing in Beijing contributed to this report.

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