Whatever happened to MH370?

Mar 20, 2014, 07:46 IST | Vikram Sood

It will be quite a while before all fuzziness and wild speculations about what actually happened to the ill-fated MH370 subsides

It will be quite a while before all fuzziness and wild speculations about what actually happened to the ill-fated MH370 subsides. Informed conjectures vary from pilot error, suicide, mid-air explosion, technical fault, or assault in the aircraft leading to hijacking, none of which can be established so early into the investigations. Speculation abounds and even the normally restrained Strobe Talbot was a bit over the top when he compared this to the WTC attack on September 11, 2001 saying that the aircraft might have been heading towards the Indian coast. It is true though that India has faced land-based and sea-borne terrorist attacks. An airborne attack would be high on the list of possibilities in the assessment of Indian intelligence.

Praying for them: An office building is illuminated with LED lights displaying ‘Pray for MH370’ next to Malaysia’s Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. It has been 13 days since the jet went missing. Pic/PTI

It could be several months or years before any truth is established. When the EgyptAir Flight 990 from New York to Cairo went down in the Atlantic in October 1999 the conclusion of the American investigators in 2002 was that the pilot had committed suicide while the Egyptians insisted it was a mechanical failure. After the Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed in the Atlantic in 2009, the black boxes were found two years later at a depth of 4,000 metres. The Malaysians searching for the jet, want to to cover an area spread from Kazakhstan to southern Indian Ocean which makes it a daunting task in this age of global connectivity, surveillance and communications.

It is implausible that China would allow an unidentified aircraft to fly through Tibet to an unknown destination. The Russians had brought down a South Korean flight KAL 007 over Siberia in 1983, as it had strayed from its authorised path. It is also implausible that the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 would have landed without night-landing facilities having flown westward from its last known location for four hours in the middle of the night as it would still be dark in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond. Moreover, it is just not possible that an aircraft can possibly fly overland for seven hours and not get detected.

There are many other questions too — about those persons with stolen passports, the inaction by the Malaysian Air Force to as the unscheduled flight went over three radars and the F-18s and F-5s did not take off to intercept. If there was an assault inside the aircraft then how was it carried out? There are also new theories that the pilot brought down the aircraft to fly at 1,500 metres to beat the radar but the accuracy and source of this claim is not known.

Many initially considered terrorism as the motive for this disappearance. However, there has been no credit taken up to now for this incident, if indeed it was a terrorist plot. No one or group claimed credit for this. This may not have been a terrorist act and more likely an accident of some kind.

There have been some discussions on the net, like a page out of a Tom Clancy novel, that MH370 after it turned around 40 minutes following take-off, might have been following the flight path of the Barcelona-bound SQ68, also a Boeing 777, at a distance of 30 nautical miles. This would have camouflaged MH370 on the radar screens so that it appeared as one blip en route from the Malacca Straits over the southern tip of India on its way across the Arabian Sea and the Arabian Peninsula.

It would require extremely accurate timing, maintenance of steady speed and flight path to follow another aircraft in this fashion and seems an unlikely possibility. There is even a sci-fi version that speaks of an American experiment with invisible aircraft.

This incident has occurred very close to our Tri-service Command at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which has three radar stations. Regardless of whether or not MH370 actually flew over or close to the Command, it would doubtless be useful to learn lessons from this and that switching off radars at night is a dangerous way to economise. Secondly, if it indeed it flew over Indian territory, we have the ability to detect unknown aircraft, and if we had detected what would be the procedure for handling an unidentified aircraft. Thirdly, if all communications had indeed been turned off by MH370 would the Indian Air Force have forced the aircraft down or merely escorted it to the borders? Finally, MH370 was not the first aircraft that disappeared in mysterious circumstances and it’s not the last one.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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