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Data-based answers on missing Malaysian plane leave many questions

The Navy's Towed Pinger Locator 25 is able to locate flight recorders on downed aircraft to a maximum depth of 20,000 feet.
Credit: CNN

Flight 370 search resumes; families remain in limbo
By Sara Sidner, Michael Pearson and Jethro Mullen


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- Cheng Li Ping is afraid to tell her sons their father might never come home.

"My heart can't handle it. I don't want to hurt my children," the Chinese woman told CNN Wednesday as she waited in Kuala Lumpur for evidence about what happened to her husband and the 238 others who were aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Cheng says she cannot bring herself to accept that her husband is dead, even after authorities announced there were no survivors.

"I can't trust the Malaysian government. I can't work now because all I can think about is my husband and my children," she told CNN's Sara Sidner in Kuala Lumpur. "I don't have strength. ... My head is a mess."

Malaysian officials say they can tell you how Flight 370 ended. It crashed into the Indian Ocean, they'll say, citing complicated math as proof.

They can tell you when it probably happened -- on March 8, sometime between 8:11 and 9:15 a.m. (7:11 to 8:15 p.m. ET March 7), handing you a sheet with extraordinarily technical details about satellite communications technology.

What they still can't tell you is why, or precisely where, or show you a piece of the wreckage.

All those uncertainties are too much for Cheng and other relatives of people aboard the plane.

In Beijing, outraged family members marched to the Malaysian Embassy to denounce the airline, the country and just about everything involved with an investigation that has transfixed the world and vexed experts.

Steve Wang, whose mother was aboard the flight, told reporters he felt there was "no evidence" that the passenger jet crashed in the Indian Ocean.

"If you find something: OK, we accept," he said. "But nothing -- just from the data, just from analysis."

Cheng says the authorities' answers to questions don't make sense.

"They have been hiding the truth," she said. "Even though they know the truth, they have been delaying it and missed out on the golden time for the search."

Malaysia Airlines says it is giving the families all the information it can and is sharing it as quickly as possible. And authorities say they know the news is hard to take. But Tuesday, acting Malaysian Transportation Minister Hishammuddin Hussein defended the decision to release the analysis and the heartbreaking conclusions that flowed from it.

"It was released out of a commitment to openness and respect for the relatives, two principles which have guided the investigation," he said.

That investigation now focuses on an area of the southern Indian Ocean off Australia's west coast, where authorities believe the plane went down after a long, odd, unexplained flight that should have ended hours before in Beijing.

Searching there resumed Wednesday after bad weather grounded planes for a day.

Hishammuddin said authorities have stopped searching for the plane altogether along a northern arc that stretched from Vietnam to Kazakhstan. Analysis of data by British satellite company Inmarsat and British accident investigators show the Boeing 777-200ER was heading south at last contact, he said.

Commercial satellite data from a U.S. company, first analyzed by Australian officials, as well as satellite data from China and France, have turned up evidence of debris bobbing in the general area where authorities believe the plane went down.

Australian and Chinese surveillance planes have both reported seeing debris on the water, but so far nothing has been recovered or definitively linked to the missing flight.

Authorities cautioned that despite the narrowing the search area, it could still be some time before crews find any sign of the airplane.

"We're not searching for a needle in a haystack," Mark Binskin, vice chief of the Australian Defence Force, told reporters. "We're still trying to define where the haystack is."

Search resumes after weather delay

After bad weather halted the hunt for a day, searching resumed Wednesday, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

A Chinese plane took off for the search area in the Indian Ocean at 5 a.m. Wednesday (5 p.m. ET Tuesday), several hours ahead of schedule, the authority said.

Gale-force winds, large waves, heavy rain and low clouds lashed the search area Tuesday, making it impossible to dispatch surveillance planes to the scene and making it all but impossible to spot anything from ships.

"It's a pretty remote area and weather conditions can get very, very bad, very, very quickly," said Neil Bennett of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. "At the moment, we're looking at a good day today, but we are expecting conditions to deteriorate again tomorrow."

Wednesday's search is set to include ships and aircraft from six countries: Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Japan, China and South Korea.

Twelve aircraft will be part of the search, Australian officials said.

Australia's HMAS Success and China's Xue Long polar supply ship are also in the search area, officials said.

U.S. equipment to help find the plane's locator beacon arrived in Perth on Wednesday.

But even with more searchers and equipment and calmer weather, the effort will still face severe challenges.

The area is extraordinarily remote -- some 1,500 miles from Perth, where military surveillance planes capable of searching the site are based. It is also astoundingly large --- some 400,000 to 500,000 square miles of ocean.

"With eight hours of flying to and from the search region, the fleet of P-3 Orion aircraft and other military aircraft have only a precious few hours to scour the search tracks they have been given," Australian Defence Minister David Johnston said.

To complicate matters, debris that may have been floating days ago, when some of the satellite images were taken, could have sunk by now. Other debris may have drifted hundreds of miles.

And time is running out to find the flight data recorder, whose locator beacon is expected to stop working sometime around April 7.

More than half a million square kilometers (193,000 square miles) have been searched to date, Australian authorities said.

Crash conclusion explained

Hishammuddin spent part of Tuesday's briefing explaining how investigators came to the conclusion that the plane must have gone into the southern Indian Ocean.

He said the analysis was based on sophisticated mathematics calculating how long it took signals from a transmitter on the plane to reach an orbiting Inmarsat communications satellite.

Much like the horn from a passing car whose pitch rises as it approaches and then falls as it races away, engineers were able examine the satellite's signal and determine it had to be moving south, he said.

Engineers checked their calculations against data from other Boeing 777 flights that day and found their technique was sound, he said.

One mystery remains in the data: The plane's transmitter and satellite tried to make one final connection at 8:19 a.m.

"At this time this transmission is not understood and is subject to further ongoing work," he said.

The analysis shows that the plane didn't answer a ping from the satellite ground station at 9:15 a.m. (8:15 p.m. ET), leading investigators to conclude the plane's satellite transmitter stopped working sometime between 8:11 and 9:15 a.m.

"This," Hishammuddin said, "is consistent with the maximum endurance of the aircraft."

That partial ping could be a key detail that helps investigators unravel what happened, experts said Tuesday.

"I think it's very significant," CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien said. "This is the last time we hear from the aircraft. You have to wonder what was going on that might have sparked (it)."

Malaysia has convened an international working group to help further narrow the search area. It involves agencies with "expertise in satellite communications and aircraft performance," he said.

It will build on the existing analysis of satellite data in hopes of pinpointing a more exact location for the plane's location.

What happened to cause the plane to veer off course and presumably crash into the Indian Ocean hours after it was supposed to arrive in Beijing remains unknown. Authorities and analysts have speculated anything from mechanical failure to terrorism to pilot suicide could have played a role.

Police have interviewed scores of people, and the Royal Malaysian Air Force is conducting its own inquiry into the disappearance, authorities say.

Anguished families react

The Malaysian government's announcement was met with anger by relatives, many of whom said it was premature to declare their loved ones dead before locating any wreckage or bodies. Others accused Malaysian officials of lying or concealing facts.

Relatives first learned of the conclusion that the plane had crashed via a text message sent to their cell phones. Malaysian authorities followed up with briefings for families in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"They have told us all lives are lost," a missing passenger's relative briefed by the airline in Beijing said Monday.

In Beijing, hundreds of friends and family members of missing passengers marched to the Malaysian Embassy to express their anger and frustration.

Uniformed police blocked journalists from joining the protesters as they approached the gates of the embassy. One woman in the crowd, overcome by stress and emotion, was carried to a nearby ambulance on a stretcher.

Malaysian officials said they are doing all they can.

Prime Minister Najib Razak explained Tuesday that he decided to make his official announcement Monday because he did not want the government to be seen as hiding information on purpose from the families of the missing passengers.

In an address to Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, he said his statement was based on "the most conclusive information we have."

Malaysia Airlines said Tuesday it has offered family members financial support of $5,000 for each passenger aboard the ill-fated flight and was preparing to make additional payments as the prolonged search continues.

CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters the airline shares in the families' grief.

"We all feel enormous sorrow and pain," he said Tuesday. "Sorrow that all those who boarded Flight MH370 on Saturday 8th March, will not see their families again. And that those families will now have to live on without those they love."

CNN's Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong; CNN's Sara Sidner and Mitra Mobasherat reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Catherine E. Shoichet and Michael Pearson from Atlanta; Pauline Chiou, David McKenzie, Jaime A. FlorCruz, Connie Young and Yuli Yang contributed from Beijing; Kyung Lah contributed from Perth, Australia.

Joel Achenbach and Scott Higham
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
The case of the missing plane remains an excruciating mystery, and the only thing authorities are saying with confidence is that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went south instead of north, flying almost halfway to Antarctica before crashing somewhere in a remote expanse of the southern Indian Ocean.

Even that conclusion, which is problematically vague for searchers, is propped up by delicate satellite data that required two weeks of interpretation. Small changes in initial assumptions about the plane's speed produce large differences — many hundreds of miles — in the calculated outcomes.

Marine debris in that lightly traveled expanse of ocean has been sighted by satellites and aircraft, but there is no evidence that it has any connection to the missing plane. Military searchers in surveillance aircraft are battling brutal weather; clouds are hampering satellite searches and NASA's efforts to spot debris with a camera on the international space station.

Time is precious. Military vessels are on the way with instruments that could pick up the ping of the aircraft's "black box" flight data recorder on the sea floor, but the pinger's batteries typically last only 30 days.

"This is really unchartered territory. Usually you have plenty of data to work with — black boxes, voice recorder, and lots of satellite telemetry. Everyone is working pretty much in the blind," said Scott Madry, a satellite expert at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.

The jetliner, a red-eye from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard, vanished March 8 with no hint of distress or any sign of an explosion or hijacking. Radar picked up signs of the plane turning around and heading west, back across the Malaysian peninsula into the Strait of Malacca.

There are many scenarios for what happened in that first hour after takeoff, ranging from a fire to a sudden decompression to a hijacking to a diversion carried out by a member of the crew. There is still no solid evidence supporting any particular narrative.

There is, however, a new consensus among investigators that the plane turned again sharply to the south and, for whatever reason, flew steadily across the uninhabited reaches of the open ocean until it ran out of fuel and crashed.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced Monday that the flight had "ended" in the southern Indian Ocean, and on Tuesday the government released background materials to justify that conclusion — instantly generating controversy.

The new flight-path analysis emerged from data gathered by the British satellite company Inmarsat. The company has a satellite in a geostationary orbit, hovering 22,000 miles above the equator over the Indian Ocean. Once an hour, a ground-based radio antenna had a "handshake" with a computer on the plane, with the transmission relayed by the satellite.

The first computer handshake came when the plane was still at the gate in Kuala Lumpur. After the plane vanished, the ground station and plane had six more hourly handshakes, indicating that the plane was still flying.

Inmarsat's scientists studied those signals and looked for subtle changes — a Doppler shift in the frequency — that would indicate whether the plane was flying toward or away from the satellite, according to a statement released Tuesday by the Malaysian government and attributed to the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

The analysis indicated that the plane flew away from the satellite in a corridor to the north or a corridor to the south. Then, in recent days, the analysts developed a theoretical model for what the signals ought to look like in each flight corridor. They examined flight data and changes in frequencies from half a dozen other Boeing 777s flying on the same night that MH370 vanished. The transmissions from MH370 matched the predictions for signals coming from a plane flying on the southern corridor.

Still, that analysis did not reveal precisely which southerly route the plane took. The final location of the plane would depend in part on its speed.

A graphic produced by the British investigators shows two potential flight paths, one if the plane was flying at 450 nautical miles per hour and another if it was going only 400 — both of them plausible speeds for a Boeing 777 cruising on autopilot.

The two paths veer apart hour by hour. The lines on the map end at points where the plane may have been at 8:11 a.m., Malaysia time, when the plane and satellite had their last handshake. The plane could have flown a bit farther after that. The two conjectured locations of the final handshake are roughly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) apart, estimated Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and an expert on satellites.

"In terms of finding the debris, you'd really like to narrow it down to a hundred miles or so, and you can't do that, because small changes in assumptions about the airplane's speed are going to change the search area by thousands of miles," McDowell said. "All this analysis does is tell you that, yes, it is in the southern Indian Ocean, it's on the southern track, it's west of Australia. But how far west, how far south, we can't do that."

He added, "What this whole experience is bringing home to people is how big this planet is and how much of it is empty ocean."

The Malaysian government said further analysis will attempt to refine the likely location of the plane when it made its final handshake.

Another anomaly surfaced Tuesday: The satellite information indicated a possible "partial" handshake eight minutes after the final full handshake. Investigators have no explanation for this.

"Why was it only partial?" Madry asked. "If there was a fire aboard the plane, it could have burned through the electrical power. Or it could have been when the aircraft impacted. That's less conceivable. Something happened on that aircraft to allow this partial handshake. Was it an anomaly? It's just a microsecond burst. It could have been an electrical failure. It could have been a fire."

The British investigators did not state explicitly that the plane crashed. Instead, the official statement sticks to what is known about the plane's ultimate silence. There was no response from the plane when, an hour and four minutes after the last full handshake, the ground station sent the next message to the plane.

"This indicates that the aircraft was no longer logged on to the network," the investigators said.

They concluded that the plane was no longer able to communicate.

"This is consistent with the maximum endurance of the aircraft."

- - -

Washington Post staff writers Jia Lynn Yang in Kuala Lumpur and Ashley Halsey III in Washington contributed to this report.

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