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Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Australia says possible objects in Indian Ocean

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: "Prayer for the missing of MH370. A nightly ritual at St Francis Xavier Church in Malaysia (March 19)." - CNN's Will Ripley. Investigators looking at the flight simulator taken from the home of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah have discovered that some data had been erased from it, Malaysia's acting transportation minister said Wednesday (March 19).
Credit: Will Ripley/CNN

Missing jetliner's disapperance generates many theories, few solid leads


By Joel Achenbach
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
The missing plane left behind a vapor trail of scenarios, and they have grown increasingly elaborate in the absence of information. Aviation consultants sense that this could be a 9/11 plot gone awry. Or perhaps it is a 9/11 plot brilliantly executed and still operational. And yet an accident of some kind still hasn't been ruled out.

The crucial evidence about what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 on March 8 may be 2 1/2 miles deep in the Indian Ocean.

One awful possibility: We'll never know.

The lack of solid data has invited freewheeling speculation in the news media and around water coolers everywhere. Individually, the scenarios tend to lack strong factual foundations. Collectively, they may or may not hold the answer.

It is in the nature of disastrous events, whether accidental or intentional, that they can occur in ways not previously anticipated, involving technological failures or nefarious strategies that become clear only in hindsight.

"There's still no clarity about what happened to that airplane other than the fact that it changed course and went off to points unknown," said Sean Cassidy, an Alaska Airlines captain who is national safety coordinator for the U.S. Air Line Pilots Association.

After an initial period in which authorities presumed that the plane's disappearance was an accident and that wreckage would be found at sea, the investigation pivoted last week toward scenarios involving an intentional diversion of the aircraft.

The search has increasingly focused on remote waters nearly 2,000 miles west of Australia. On Wednesday, U.S. officials said a U.S. Navy plane able to search under water was repositioned to help look for the jet in that corner of the Indian Ocean.

In Malaysia, investigators disclosed Wednesday that data had been erased from a flight simulator that the plane's pilot had kept at his home. The FBI has stepped in to help Malaysian authorities retrieve the deleted files in an effort to find out whether they reveal clues to the plane's whereabouts. The data deletion is not necessarily suspicious, aviation experts say.

Malaysian officials have asked the public not to jump to conclusions. That thought was echoed by Cassidy.

"I understand why they're going down the criminal road, because they have stuff they can still investigate — background checks, pulling the pilot's computer, and looking at all the folks who were in the airplane or somehow touched the airplane," Cassidy said. "The data points on how to pinpoint the airplane are kind of drying up. But that does not mean that they should not still give a lot of thought to the possibility that it was an accident. I don't think they should be running to vilify the pilots."

Aviation experts are discussing many possibilities, and they include:

Mechanical failure

The plane could have suffered some kind of electrical fire that caused a crisis and an emergency response. This was the hypothesis of a much-discussed article on Wired.com by a pilot who argued that the pilot of Flight MH370 must have turned the aircraft around in hopes of reaching an airport for an emergency landing, only to crash somewhere at sea.

Another possibility is catastrophic decompression. The crew could have lost consciousness and the plane could have kept flying — what people have been calling the "Payne Stewart scenario," after the golfer who died in 1999 when a Learjet underwent decompression and kept flying for more than 1,000 miles before crashing in South Dakota.

* If the Malaysian plane's diversion was pre-programmed, as some reports suggest, that would pretty much rule out an accident. The pilot never radioed any distress, and the radios rely on batteries and would still operate after an electrical fire, said Hans Weber, a San Diego-based aviation consultant.

Moreover, a fire would presumably be progressive and would allow time to transmit a distress signal. Cassidy said the lack of radio transmission makes the fire scenario difficult to believe. But the lack of communication doesn't prove anything, he said.

"Every single professional pilot is trained that, when you have an emergency, the first focus is on actually flying the plane, next is on navigating it, and the third priority is actually communicating," Cassidy said. "The absence of a distress call does not imply that there was no distress in the airplane."

Hijacking/commandeering

Technically, a hijacking comes with demands, whereas commandeering can be for a variety of malevolent or idiosyncratic purposes. But in both cases this would have been a plane intentionally diverted — for reasons unknown — from its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"It had enough fuel to go many places, and, unfortunately, it had enough fuel to go into places where you don't have civil radar systems, for example, and into a part of the world where terrorism and to some extent state-supported terrorism exists," said George Hamlin, an aviation consultant based in Fairfax, Va.

He broached the possibility that this is part of an ongoing operation akin to the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks — including, perhaps, using the plane to deliver an explosive device somewhere.

"It suggests something else horrific is being planned, because no one is claiming credit or saying, 'Ha ha, you have to deal with us.' There have been no demands for the 200-something hostages on the aircraft," Hamlin said.

Although this line of thinking has spawned a great deal of guessing, there is no hard evidence behind it. Investigators have not indicated that anyone on the plane has any affiliation with a terrorist organization or showed signs of a murderous mind-set.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst in Fairfax, Va., said he doubts Hamlin's scenario of the Boeing 777 being used to deliver a bomb.

"Jeez Louise, why mess around with a triple-7? Go and rent yourself a Cessna," he said.

The plane landed

Hundreds of airfields were in range of the airliner, conceivably. It's implausible that it landed at a major commercial airport. This leads to speculation that it reached an abandoned airstrip.

"There's a lot of World War II airfields left over," said Ron Carr, a former pilot and a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. "These guys are not interested in protecting the airplane, so they're going to use minimal airfields. They're going to use one that's fairly secluded. You're not going to need landing lights; you certainly don't want a tower."

There is no evidence that the plane landed, however. It would have had to elude radar coverage, land and then hide. This scenario also requires additional layers of speculation about the perpetrator and the motive.

Officials know where the jet is

Officials in charge of the investigation may know much more than they have revealed. They may have decided to withhold information to protect investigatory assets (such as satellite capabilities), to cover up a mistake or national security inadequacy (such as a lack of good radar coverage), or to avoid tipping off people of interest.

"We're dealing with military organizations, and they don't want to tell you, and especially they don't want to tell you if it looks like they really screwed up," Weber said. "The military doesn't want to look bad in their own country. I think there is a lot of incentive for the militaries there to not come clean."

There is no evidence that anyone knows where the plane is, and there is enormous pressure from the public and grieving families in particular for an answer to the mystery.

Terror attempt was aborted

If hijackers seized the plane, they conceivably could have been challenged by passengers or crew members, as happened on United Airlines Flight 93, the hijacked jetliner that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. Many scenarios emerge from this one. It's possible that hijackers intentionally crashed the plane in the remote Indian Ocean to cover the tracks of an ambitious operation that didn't quite work, but one that could be attempted again someday.

"That's the only thing that holds together with any logical consistency: that this is a failed 9/11," Aboulafia said.

Said Weber, "I think the most likely scenario is these terrorists managed to commandeer the airplane, and they set a route, and at some point the pilots fought with the people who commandeered the airplane and somehow everybody got incapacitated and there was no one anymore who could fly the airplane."

Said Hamlin, "I'm not taking bets on any of the scenarios. But you have to do some out-of-the-box thinking in terms of what could have happened here."

But Cassidy is not pleased with the circus-like atmosphere of speculation in the media about what happened.

"Your guess is as good as anybody's," he said. "One of these people is bound to be right, but it's going to be because they were lucky, not because they're a mystic."

- - -

Washington Post staff writers Simon Denyer and Chico Harlan in Kuala Lumpur and Ashley Halsey III in Washington contributed to this report.

Jethro Mullen, Chelsea J. Carter and Mitra Mobasherat

CNN

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- Authorities have spotted two objects in the Indian Ocean that are possibly related to the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Thursday.

"New and credible information has come to light in relation to the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean," Abbott said in the the Australian House of Representatives in Canberra. "The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has received information based on satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search.

"Following specialist analysis of this satellite imagery, two possible objects related to the search have been identified," he said. "I can inform the House that a Royal Australian Air Force Orion has been diverted to attempt to locate the objects."

Three other planes will carry out a "more intensive follow-up search," he said.

Australian search teams have been at the forefront of the hunt for the missing plane in the remote southern Indian Ocean.

The announcement from Abbott raises hopes of finding parts of the plane after a huge search that is now in its 13th day. Previous reports of debris found in the sea have not turned out to be related to the passenger jet, which vanished over Southeast Asia earlier this month.

But those reports came before the search area was massively expanded into two large arcs, one that heads northwest into Asia, the other southwest into the Indian Ocean.

The Malaysian military is checking the new information from Australian authorities, a source close to the investigation told CNN.

"Verification might take some time. It is very far and it will take some time to locate and verify the objects," the source said.

Malaysia's Acting Transportation Secretary Hishammuddin Hussein said Abbott had informed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak of the development Thursday.

"At this stage, Australian officials have yet to establish whether these objects are indeed related to the search for MH370," Hishammuddin said.

Other pieces of information related to the investigation into the plane's disappearance had emerged Wednesday.

Flight simulator probed

Investigators looking at the flight simulator taken from the home of Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the pilot of the plane, have discovered that some data had been deleted from it, Hishammuddin said at a news conference.

What the revelation means is unclear. It could be another dead end in an investigation that has been full of them so far, or it could provide further evidence for the theory that one or more of the flight crew may have been involved in the plane's disappearance 12 days ago.

"It may not tell us anything. It's a step in the process," one U.S. law enforcement source told CNN. "It could be a very insignificant detail in the process."

Investigators have been looking into the background of all 239 passengers and crew members aboard the plane that vanished in the early morning hours of March 8 while en route from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Particular attention has focused on the pilot and first officer on Flight 370, but authorities have yet to come up with any evidence explaining why either of them would have taken the jetliner off course.

Hishammuddin didn't say what had been deleted, but simulation programs can store data from previous sessions for later playback. He also did not say who might have deleted the data.

FBI examination

Specialists are examining the simulator in hopes of recovering the data that was deleted, Hishammuddin said.

Among them are experts at the FBI's forensics lab in Quantico, Virginia, who are examining a copy of the simulator's hard drive, as well as a copy of the hard drive from the computer of co-pilot Fariq Ab Hamid, law enforcement sources told CNN.

The FBI examination of the computer drives involves sorting through a large volume of data, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation.

"It is going to take some period of time, but we are analyzing it with a great degree of urgency. It is prioritized right at the top because the world is trying to figure this out," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Deleted files from Shah's simulator could reveal it had been used to practice diverting the plane and flying it to an unfamiliar airport, experts said. But even if investigators retrieve past simulations showing that Zaharie practiced flying to seemingly odd locations, that doesn't necessarily indicate evidence of anything nefarious, said Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"You put in strange airports and try to land there, just to see if you can do it," said Schiavo, adding that she sometimes does just that on the flight simulation program on her home computer.

'Grasping at straws'

President Barack Obama called the search for Flight 370 "a top priority," telling KDFW of Dallas on Wednesday that the United States will keep working on it.

"We have put every resource that we have available at the disposal of the search process," he said.

But beyond help with the computer drives, the Malaysian government has not put in a formal request for additional FBI help overseas, according to the senior U.S. official.

"We have made it clear we are ready to provide help whenever they need it," the official said. "We are grasping at straws. No one is running on anything white hot."

More than 60 ships and 50 aircraft are participating in the search. But at least two aircraft, a Japanese search plane and a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion, sat on a runway at a Subang air base this week after Indonesia refused to allow the planes to fly through its airspace.

"From what I understand, this is an international operation," Cmdr. William Marks, spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, told CNN by telephone. "...I'm confident we're going to be flying today or very soon."

Later, Indonesia's military spokesman told CNN clearance was given to all search planes.

Although the search area spans nearly 3 million square miles, a U.S. government official familiar with the investigation said the missing plane is most likely somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

"This is an area out of normal shipping lanes, out of any commercial flight patterns, with few fishing boats, and there are no islands," the official said, warning that the search could well last "weeks and not days."

Angry families want answers

The lack of progress has angered and frustrated families, who have accused Malaysian officials of withholding information.

Some family members staged a protest at the Kuala Lumpur hotel where media covering the search are staying. Their efforts were cut short by security guards who removed them through a crush of reporters, dragging one as she screamed.

"I don't care what your government does," one woman shouted, referring to the Malaysians. "I just want my son back."

The agony of the wait is also being felt by families in Beijing, the scheduled destination for Flight 370. They gather daily for a briefing with officials.

Ye Lun, whose brother-in-law is on the missing plane, says every day is the same. He and his group leave the hotel in the morning for a daily briefing, and that's it. They go back to the hotel to watch the news on television.

In a statement, Hishammuddin said Malaysian authorities "regret the scenes at this afternoon's press conference."

"One can only imagine the anguish they are going through," he said of the families. "Malaysia is doing everything in its power to find MH370 and hopefully bring some degree of closure for those whose family members are missing."

An abrupt change in direction

The disappearance continues to intrigue the public and frustrate officials, who have turned up no sign of the plane despite the involvement of teams from 26 nations.

On Tuesday, a law enforcement official told CNN that the aircraft's first major change of course -- an abrupt westward turn that took the plane off its route to China and back across the Malay Peninsula -- was almost certainly programmed by somebody in the cockpit.

The change was entered into the plane's system at least 12 minutes before a person in the cockpit, believed to be the co-pilot, signed off to air traffic controllers. Two minutes after the signoff, the plane's transponder stopped communicating details about the plane's altitude, speed and heading.

Some experts said the change in direction could have been part of an alternate flight plan programmed in advance in case of emergency; others suggested it could show something more nefarious was afoot.

But Hishammuddin said Wednesday that "there is no additional waypoint on MH370's documented flight plan, which depicts normal routing all the way to Beijing."

The Thai military, meanwhile, said it had spotted the plane turning west toward the Strait of Malacca early on March 8. That supports the analysis of Malaysian military radar that has the plane flying out over the Strait of Malacca and into the Indian Ocean.

But it didn't make it any clearer where the plane went next. Authorities say information from satellites suggests the plane kept flying for about six hours after it was last detected by Malaysian military radar.

Malaysian authorities, who are coordinating the search, say the available evidence suggests the missing plane flew off course in a deliberate act by someone who knew what they were doing.

Background checks

Investigators are looking into the background of all the passengers and crew members on board the plane, as well as its ground crew, Malaysian officials have said. They've received background checks for all passengers on board, with the exception of those from Russia and Ukraine, Hishammuddin said.

So far, no information of significance has been found about any passengers, Hishammuddin said.

China says it has found nothing suspicious during background checks on its citizens on the flight -- a large majority of the plane's passengers.

And some experts have warned against hastily jumping to conclusions about the role of the pilots.

"I've worked on many cases were the pilots were suspect, and it turned out to be a mechanical and horrible problem," said Schiavo. "And I have a saying myself: Sometimes, an erratic flight path is heroism, not terrorism."

Ticking clock

Searchers are racing the clock in their efforts to find the plane and its flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders. The devices have batteries designed to send out pings for 30 days. That leaves 18 days until the batteries are expected to run out.

The task is being complicated by the scope of the search area, as well as the depth of some of the waters being searched -- up to 23,000 feet (7,000 meters).

Searchers trying to find and retrieve wreckage and bodies from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, had to use unmanned submarines.

It took nearly two years to find the bulk of the wreckage, including the flight data recorders, in waters nearly 12,000 feet deep. It took even longer to determine what happened to the plane.

Mitra Mobasherat reported from Kuala Lumpur, and Jethro Mullen in Hong Kong and Chelsea J. Carter in Atlanta wrote this report. CNN's Pamela Brown, Michael Pearson, Jim Clancy, Brian Todd, David Fitzpatrick, Kyung Lah, Atika Shubert, Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report.

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