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New uncertainty about missing Malaysian plane

Photos from on board a C130 plane which had taken Malaysian officials out to survey the search & rescue operation for MH370 over the Malacca Straits. CNN was invited to join them. Photos: 1) Preparing for take off 2) officials pray before take off 3) Air Force crew prays ahead of take off 4) navy chief, minister for defence & Chief of Defence force review map of the search operation including Strait of Mallaca where we are headed to. (We don't know who guy in green is) 5) air crew open doors for viewing platform 6) plane casts an eerie shadow in waters where search for MH370 underway 7) minister for defence, navy chief & Chief of Defence force discuss the overwhelming task ahead 8) CNN joins search & rescue mission 9) Air crew looks out across Strait of Mallaca
Credit: Saima Mohsin

Could Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have slipped by radar?
By Catherine E. Shoichet and Michael Pearson

CNN

(CNN) -- Could a massive passenger jet slip past radar, cross international borders and land undetected?

That's a key question investigators are weighing as they continue the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished March 8 on a flight between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Beijing.

Radar does have some blind spots, and it's possible to fly at lower altitudes to avoid being spotted, analysts told CNN.

But experts are divided over whether that could be what happened to the missing Boeing 777.

Jeffrey Beatty, a security consultant and former FBI special agent, says someone could have planned a route that avoided radar detection.

"It certainly is possible to fly through the mountains in that part of the world and not be visible on radar. Also, an experienced pilot, anyone who wanted to go in that direction, could certainly plot out all the known radar locations, and you can easily determine, where are the radar blind spots?" he said. "It's the type of things the Americans did when they went into Pakistan to go after Osama bin Laden."

On Monday, the Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times reported that the plane may have flown low to the ground -- 5,000 feet or less -- and used mountainous terrain as cover to evade radar detection. The newspaper cited unnamed sources for its reporting, which CNN could not immediately confirm.

And a senior Indian military official told CNN on Monday that military radar near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands isn't as closely watched as other radar systems. That leaves open the possibility that Indian radar systems may not have picked up the airplane at the time of its last known Malaysian radar contact, near the tiny island of Palau Perak in the Strait of Malacca.

U.S. officials have said they don't think it's likely the plane flew north over land as it veered off course. If it had, they've said, radar somewhere would have detected it. Landing the plane somewhere also seems unlikely, since that would require a large runway, refueling capability and the ability to fix the plane, the officials have said.

Malaysian officials said Monday that they were not aware of the Malaysian newspaper's report.

"It does not come from us," said Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.

Analysts interviewed by CNN said that it would be extremely difficult to fly such a large aircraft so close to the ground over a long period of time, and that it's not even clear that doing so would keep the plane off radar scopes.

"Five-thousand isn't really low enough to evade the radar, and that's kind of where general aviation flies all the time anyway, and we're visible to radar," said Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"It just seems really highly improbable, unless we've been overestimating a lot of other countries' radar system capabilities," said Daniel Rose, an aviation and maritime attorney.

Buck Sexton, a former CIA officer who's now national security editor for TheBlaze.com, said radar would have detected the plane if it flew over land.

"This is a bus in the sky. It's a lot harder to get under the radar with this kind of thing than I think most people realize," he said. "So really, while the search I know has extended to this vast area stretching up into (the nations and central or south Asia), clearly there really should be much more of a search over open water, because this is not getting past people's radars."

It wouldn't be easy to avoid radar detection, experts say, but it could be done.

"Anything like this is possible," radar expert Greg Charvat told CNN's Piers Morgan Live. "But to do it, you'd have to have very detailed information of the type of radars, their disposition, their heights and their waveforms to pull that off."

Different countries would likely be using different radar systems, he said, but it's unclear how advanced the technology is in many countries.

"It took a great deal of skill to do this," CNN aviation analyst Jim Tilmon said. "I think somebody was at the controls who understood the value of altitude control to eliminate the possibility of being spotted and tracked on radar."

Whoever was in control in the cockpit, he said, "really had the ability to map out a route that was given the very best chance of not being detected."

One other possibility, he said: the plane could have shadowed another plane so closely that it slipped by radar detection.

Other analysts say that would require so much skill that it would be nearly impossible to pull off without getting caught.

There's another possible wrinkle, experts say. Some countries may be hesitant to reveal what they've seen on radar.

"They want to protect their own capabilities," Beatty said. "Their intelligence services are not going to want to publicize exactly what their capabilities are."

Here are other developments in the search and investigation, as search crews from 26 nations continue scouring vast swaths of ocean and land for any trace of the airliner:

Timeline clarification

Ahmad Jauhari said Monday that it wasn't clear whether the final words from the cockpit came before or after the plane's data-reporting system was shut down. Earlier, Malaysian authorities had said the message "All right, good night" came after the system had been disabled.

The voice message came from the plane's copilot at 1:19 a.m. Saturday, March 8, Ahmad Jauhari said. The data system sent its last transmission at 1:07 a.m. and was shut down sometime between then and 1:37 a.m. that day, Ahmad Jauhari said.

Grief counselor: Families holding on to hope

As authorities keep searching for the plane, the loved ones of the 239 passengers and crew members who were on board are left in limbo.

Helping them has been difficult, grief counselor Paul Yin told CNN's "AC360."

"Grief counseling, or any kind of recovery from this, has to have a starting point. And the starting point is having a verdict of what happened," he said. "Without a starting point, every day people's emotions go up and down, from hope to despair."

He heard some family members cheer when they learned that hijacking was possibly what caused the plane's disappearance.

"Because that means they could still be alive," he said. "They're trying to hold onto any little bit of hope."

Chinese response

China said Monday that it had deployed 10 ships, 21 satellites and multiple aircraft to aid in the search.

Premier Li Keqiang spoke with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to ask for more information to help speed the search along, according to a statement posted on the Chinese government website.

A top Malaysian official denied the allegation that his country had held back information about the missing flight.

"Our priority has always been to find the aircraft. We would not withhold any information that could help," Acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Haishammuddin Tun Hussein told reporters. "But we also have a responsibility not to release information until it has been verified by the international investigations team."

U.S. Navy pulls out destroyer

The USS Kidd and its helicopters have stopped combing the Andaman Sea and are no longer part of search efforts for the missing plane, the Navy said.

The move is partially because Australians are taking over the majority of the searching in that area, U.S. officials said. A U.S. P-8 aircraft will move to Perth, Australia, to be based there for searching.

Fewer U.S. assets will be involved in the search for the missing plane, but U.S. officials said the P-8 will be able to cover a wider range of ocean more quickly than the ship could.

"This is actually much more effective for the overall search," Cmdr. William Marks of the U.S. 7th Fleet told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Monday.

"The real challenge is this huge expanse of water. I keep saying, if you superimposed a map of the U.S. on here, it'd be like trying to find someone anywhere between New York and California. so that's the challenge here," he said. "We have amazing, dedicated air crews. it's just a matter of how much area we can search."

CNN's Barbara Starr, Brooke Baldwin, Wolf Blitzer and Elizabeth Joseph contributed to this report.

IAN MADER, Associated Press


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Officials have revealed a new timeline suggesting the final voice transmission from the cockpit of the missing Malaysian plane may have occurred before any of its communications systems were disabled, adding more uncertainty about who aboard might have been to blame.

The search for Flight 370, which vanished early March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, has now been expanded deep into the northern and southern hemispheres. Australian vessels scoured the southern Indian Ocean and China offered 21 of its satellites to help Malaysia in the unprecedented hunt.

With no wreckage found in one of the most puzzling aviation mysteries of all time, passengers' relatives have been left in an agonizing limbo.

Investigators say the Boeing 777 was deliberately diverted during its overnight flight and flew off-course for hours. They haven't ruled out hijacking, sabotage, or pilot suicide, and are checking the backgrounds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members — as well as the ground crew — for personal problems, psychological issues or links to terrorists.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Monday that finding the plane was still the main focus, and he did not rule out that it might be discovered intact.

"The fact that there was no distress signal, no ransom notes, no parties claiming responsibility, there is always hope," Hishammuddin said at a news conference.

Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said an initial investigation indicated that the last words ground controllers heard from the plane — "All right, good night" — were spoken by the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid. Any voice other than that of Fariq or the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, would have been the clearest indication yet of something amiss in the cockpit before the flight went off-course.

Malaysian officials said earlier that those words came after one of the jetliner's data communications systems — the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System — had been switched off, suggesting the voice from the cockpit may have been trying to deceive ground controllers.

However, Ahmad said that while the last data transmission from ACARS — which gives plane performance and maintenance information — came before that, it was still unclear at what point the system was switched off, making any implications of the timing murkier.

The new information opened the possibility that both ACARS and the plane's transponders, which make the plane visible to civilian air traffic controllers, were turned off at about the same time. It also suggests that the message delivered from the cockpit could have preceded any of the severed communications.

Turning off a transponder is easy and, in rare instances, there may be good reason to do so in flight — for example, if it were reporting incorrect data.

The Malaysian plane does not appear to fit that scenario, said John Gadzinski, a 737 captain.

"There is a raised eyebrow, like Spock on Star Trek — you just sit there and go, 'Why would anybody do that?'" Gadzinski said of what he is hearing among pilots.

Other pilots in the United States cautioned against reading too much into what little is known about the actions of the Malaysia Airlines crew.

"You can't take anything off the table until everything is on the table, and we don't even have an aircraft," said Boeing 737 pilot Mike Karn, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

Authorities have pointed to the shutdown of the transponders and the ACARS as evidence that someone with a detailed knowledge of the plane was involved. But Bob Coffman, an airline captain and former 777 pilot, said that kind of information is not hard to find in the digital age.

Authorities confiscated a flight simulator from the pilot's home Saturday and also visited the home of the co-pilot in what Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar initially said were the first police visits to those homes.

But the government, which has come under criticism abroad for missteps and foot-dragging in releasing information, issued a statement Monday contradicting that account, saying police first visited the pilots' homes as early as March 9, the day after the flight disappeared.

Coffman said the flight simulator could signify nothing more than the pilot's zeal for his job.

"There are people for whom flying is all consuming," he said, noting some pilots like to spend their off-duty hours on simulators at home, commenting on pilot blogs or playing fighter-pilot video games.

Although Malaysian authorities requested that all nations with citizens aboard the flight conduct background checks on them, it wasn't clear how thoroughly the checks were done in Malaysia. The father of a Malaysian aviation engineer aboard the plane said police had not approached anyone in the family about his 29-year-old son, Mohamad Khairul Amri Selamat, though he added that there was no reason to suspect him.

"It is impossible for him to be involved in something like this," said Selamat Omar, 60. "We are keeping our hopes high. I am praying hard that the plane didn't crash and that he will be back soon."

French investigators arrived in Kuala Lumpur to lend expertise from the two-year search for an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. They said they were able to rely on distress signals in their search. But that vital tool is missing in the Malaysia Airlines mystery because the flight's communications were deliberately silenced ahead of its disappearance, investigators say.

"It's very different from the Air France case. The Malaysian situation is much more difficult," said Jean Paul Troadec, a special adviser to France's aviation accident investigation bureau.

Malaysia's government sent diplomatic cables to all countries in the search area, seeking more planes and ships and asking for any radar data that might help.

The search initially focused on seas on either side of Peninsular Malaysia, in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.

It was vastly expanded after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said over the weekend that investigators determined that a satellite picked up a faint signal from the aircraft about 7½ hours after takeoff. The signal indicated the plane would have been somewhere on a vast arc stretching from Kazakhstan in Central Asia to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

The vast scope of the search, now involving 26 countries, was underlined when a U.S. destroyer that already has helped cover 15,000 square miles (38,850 square kilometers) of water dropped out.

The Navy concluded that long-range aircraft were more efficient in looking for the plane or its debris than the USS Kidd and its helicopters, so effective Tuesday the ship was leaving the Indian Ocean search area, said Navy Cmdr. William Marks, spokesman for the 7th Fleet. Navy P-3 and P-8 surveillance aircraft remain available, and can cover 15,000 square miles (38,850 square kilometers) in a nine-hour flight.

The southern Indian Ocean is the world's third-deepest and one of the most remote stretches of water, with little radar coverage.

Hishammuddin said Monday that searches in both the northern and southern stretches of the arc had begun, and that countries from Australia in the south, China in the north and Kazakhstan to the west had joined the hunt.

Had the plane gone northwest to Central Asia, it would have crossed over countries with busy airspace. Some experts believe it more likely would have gone south, although Malaysian authorities are not ruling out the northern corridor and are eager for radar data that might confirm or rule out that route.

The northern corridor crosses through countries including China, India and Pakistan — all of which have said they have no sign of the plane. China, where two-thirds of the passengers were from, is providing several planes and 21 satellites for the search, Premier Li Keqiang said in a statement.

Indonesia focused on Indian Ocean waters west of Sumatra, air force spokesman Rear Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto said.

Australia agreed to Malaysia's request to take the lead in searching the southern Indian Ocean with four Orion maritime planes that would be joined by New Zealand and U.S. aircraft, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.

___

Associated Press writers Joan Lowy and Robert Burns in Washington, Chris Brummitt, Jim Gomez and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Australia, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.
 

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