Is this missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370?

Western media has found satellite images of suspected debris that China published last night. The objects were imaged in the South China Sea near Vietnam by a Chinese satellite late on Sunday morning, more than a day after the 777-200 with 239 people on board vanished over the Gulf of Thailand on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

The objects have not been confirmed as coming from the missing airliner but they were imaged in a location in the vicinity of the projected flight path of MH370 after contact had been lost over the Gulf of Thailand. Efforts to locate the objects, which would have drifted away from the observed location, are underway.

Last night, after running more than two-and-a-half hours late, the day five media briefing in KL has come up with a new “last possible” radar trace for the aircraft. It was picked up by defence radar at 2.15am on Saturday, 200 nautical miles or 360 kilometres north-west of Penang as an unidentified aircraft at 29,500 feet. That’s according to the chief of the Royal Malaysia Air Force, Rodzali Daud.

This is well north of the place where Rodzali earlier in the day denied saying to the Malaysia media that this was where defence radar saw the missing airliner after it was tracked flying across the Malaysia peninsula to the northern approach to the main Strait of Malacca. In other words, in this very chaotic media conference the Air Force chief confirmed what he denied he said yesterday, although he did not go into as much detail as was reported in the national media, and pushed the location of the unidentified aircraft to a point near Phuket in Thailand.

This time he said: “I am not saying it was MH370.”

And he also gave the radar trace a new time, 2.15am local time, not 2.40am, which had been — coincidentally or otherwise — the time of last contact with the airliner originally given by Malaysia Airlines before it began a process of changing times and event descriptions on a regular and confusing basis.

It was made clear, through the clutter of the media conference, that this radar sighting inspired the original extension of the search area from the Gulf of Thailand to include the western side of the Malaysia peninsula, and today’s further extension much deeper into the Andaman Sea.

MH370 was a 777-200 service carrying 239 passenger and crew on a regular Kuala Lumpur to Beijing service. To recap, it left KL at 12.40am, it disappeared as a commercial radar trace at 1.22am close to the area where such radar visibility to the Malaysia air traffic control system drops off, and was never observed as entering Vietnam-controlled air space on a path intended to cross that country to the South China Sea and continue past Hong Kong toward its destination.

There are reports of emergency frequency radio contact with MH370 up to 1.30am, which haven’t been convincingly ruled out, and which was originally the revised time Malaysia Airlines said it had its last contact with the airliner in the same breath that it said it lost the radar trace at 1.22am.

“It is this constant stumbling over what should be precise and unambiguous markers for the progress of MH370 which have helped undermine the credibility of the airline …”

It is this constant stumbling over what should be precise and unambiguous markers for the progress of MH370 which have helped undermine the credibility of the airline, which seems to be rewriting the basic information every time it says anything.

Last night’s delayed media conference was a hair-tearer for the technical aviation media because, for its brief duration, the panel reversed the usual definition of primary and secondary radar, referring to the primary radar used by Malaysia defence as being secondary in purpose, and the secondary commercial radar as performing the primary role. Which is both right-sounding, but wrong.

The commercial radar uses transponders on airliners to identify them by flight number to air traffic controllers. The defence radars primarily record flying objects without using transponder-generated identification for commercial flights.

The acting transport minister and minister of defence Hishammuddin Hussein said that apart from looking further into the Andaman Sea, the search would also maintain a dual focus on the South China Sea between Vietnam and Hong Kong.

The Air Force chief said the agencies from other countries were helping Malaysia reconcile the radar traces picked up by defence radar with those recorded by the commercial air traffic control radars as well as enable a better understanding as to what the military radar saw near Pulau Perak, as he didn’t say to the Malaysian media yesterday.

If it wasn’t an airliner looking like an airliner at 29,500 feet in Malaysia airspace that was seen by the defence radar — at a point where it should also have been easily discoverable by normal civilian ATC radar — that in itself on a “normal” day would be a puzzle that the authorities would presumably try to resolve without delay.

What is so frustrating in the lack of detail given by the Malaysian authorities is their failure to address such obvious questions. They would have known precisely what scheduled airliners were flying over western Malaysia on Saturday morning. Military radar is not needed to answer that question.

These evasions or omissions in the briefing last night make it overwhelmingly likely that the original reports attributed to Rodzali Daud were correct, and that there is a cover-up of important detail being attempted by the authorities, with less and less success with every day.

If the traces of MH370 are in the Andaman or South China Seas, they are rapidly vanishing. The dispersal of floating items of wreckage will make the location of the crash site and the black box flight data and voice recorders, which would have sunk, that much more difficult to find.

Peter Fray

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