Friday, March 14, 2014

Flight 370, where are you?

In addition to the unfolding crisis in Ukraine ... and Venezuela ... and Syria ... the world has been transfixed by the bizarre and increasingly ominous case of Malaysia Air Flight 370. CNN gives a pretty decent account of the known activities of the missing Boeing 777-200ER. The plane left Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 am local time on Saturday, March 8, headed for its intended destination of Beijing, and then:
Around 1:30 a.m., air traffic controllers in Subang, outside Kuala Lumpur, lost contact with the plane over the sea between Malaysia and Vietnam. The plane's transponder, which identifies the aircraft and relays details like altitude and speed to controllers, stops transmitting.
A senior Malaysian air force official said Tuesday the flight was hundreds of miles off course and traveling in the opposite direction from its original destination. It was last tracked over over Pulau Perak, a tiny island in the Strait of Malacca at about 2:40 a.m., over an hour after air traffic controllers in Subang lost contact with the aircraft.
At the news briefing Wednesday, however, Gen. Rodzali Daud, head of the Malaysian Air Force, and other officials said it wasn't yet clear whether the object that showed up on military radar flying over the sea northwest of the Malaysian coast early Saturday was the missing plane.
Adding to the puzzle, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the plane may have continued flying for four hours after its last reported contact. The newspaper attributed the information to two unidentified sources who were citing data automatically transmitted to the ground from the aircraft's Rolls-Royce-manufactured engines. A senior aviation source with detailed knowledge of the matter told CNN's Richard Quest on Thursday the Wall Street Journal account was incorrect. The paper later corrected its story, saying it was satellite data, not engine data, that drove the belief the plane continued to fly.

Scheduled flight path and points of lost contact and last contact with Flight 370. (CNN)
When the initial reports came in that Flight 370 had gone off course, I had thought -- hoped? -- this was a situation like Oceanic Flight 815. At worst -- and this would indeed be bad, because of the 239 poor souls onboard -- a Flight 19 situation. But when the information came in that the plane's transponders had been intentionally turned off and the plane had flown off course, but between known, pre-set navigational waypoints, far darker scenarios started emerging.

Flight 370 has not been seen since. On its face that's bizarre, but perhaps not unexpected. Most of Malaysia consists of dense jungle (albeit not impenetrable jungle, as the British found out to their dismay in World War II). Judging by the radar contact off Pulau Perak at 2:40 am, the redirected 777 would have flown closest to Kota Bharu and Alor Star (both with World War II British airfields), before heading out over the Strait of Malacca. Considering the time of night and the area over which it flew, there would have been few visual witnesses to the plane's flight.

Once over the Strait of Malacca, the missing 777 might have been free to go anywhere. Its suggested course would have taken it over the Indonesian island of Sumatra, specifically northern Sumatra, a region called Aceh, While Indonesia has a central government based on Java and many well developed areas on Java, south Sumatra, and Bali, many of the outlying islands and dense jungle areas of Borneo and Celebes are only loosely governed. Aceh is one of these areas. Historically, dating back to the times when the Dutch ruled the islands, Aceh has been a fairly lawless area, remote, with a strong separatist bent. It is one reason why the Strait of Malacca is constantly plagued with pirates. I can't say whether the Indonesian central government even has radar coverage over Aceh. Banda Aceh, the major city, is not that big. There are likely hidden airfields in the jungle, either built by the Japanese in World War II or by the Dutch beforehand -- the Dutch were foresighted enough to seed Indonesia with airfields before World War II, and then shortsighted enough to neither defend them adequately nor base appropriate aircraft on them, so that the Japanese got far more use of the airfields than the Dutch did. See the now-infamous "Kendari II" airfield -- still in operation -- on Sulawesi for an example.

Another theory making the rounds is that the plane somehow landed on a remote field in the Indian Ocean, perhaps in the Andaman Islands north of Sumatra. The international airport in Port Blair is big enough to handle a 777, but the island officials insist such a large plane could not have landed there without anyone noticing. The Andamans were home to Japanese bases in World War II; the Imperial Japanese Navy's heavy cruiser Haguro was ambushed and sunk by British destroyers in the final weeks of the war during an operation to resupply the islands.

None of which does anything to answer the question of what happened to the plane. As CNN describes it, "The flight has turned into one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history, befuddling industry experts and government officials. Authorities still don't know where the plane is or what caused it to vanish." Based on the fuel on board Flight 370, this is the range of the 777:

Range of Flight 370 based on its fuel load. (CNN)
That is a lot of territory to cover. And you see it right -- it could conceivably have reached Pakistan. And that's assuming it did not stop in, say, Aceh, and somehow refuel. Ominous.

And the ominosity -- is that a word? -- gets worse:
An Indonesian terrorist organization that a senior defense official said this week posed a “serious transnational threat” has previously been caught planning hijackings in the region where Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared.
U.S. military assets participating in the search and recovery efforts confirmed they were asked to relocate to the west side of Indonesia in the Indian Ocean as pings indicated the plane turned away from its route to China and turned back over the Malaysian peninsula. ABC News also reported Thursday that the data-reporting system on the flight shut down before the transponder, from 1:07 1:21 a.m., raising suspicions that the plane was at the hands of someone nefarious.
Gee, ya think?
Jemaah Islamiyah has long had designs on roping Malaysia and the Philippines into an Islamist state along with Indonesia, and was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government after the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing. The group has traditionally used Malaysia for fundraising and as a home base for trainees fresh from the Af-Pak region.
JI plotter Mas Selamat Kastari, who escaped from custody in Singapore in 2008 and was recaptured in Malaysia the following year, was accused of orchestrating a plot earlier in the decade to hijack a plane out of Bangkok’s airport and crash it into Singapore’s airport.
Jemaah Islamiyah had been considered a shadow of its former self in recent years, but the terror group’s name has been occasionally dropped on Capitol Hill as a jihadi movement getting a new lease on life in a post-Osama world.
“Indonesians are the first — are for the first time going overseas to fight, not just to train, which has given rise to concerns that this conflict may breathe new life into the group Jemaah Islamiyah, which analysts previously considered to be moribund,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a Syria hearing last week.
The scenarios, as explained by John Hinderaker at Power Line, are not hopeful:
1) The plane may have crashed into the sea, due to pilot error or running out of gas (the Payne Stewart theory?). Initially there were thoughts that this could be an instance of pilot suicide along the lines of the Egypt Air crash, but it seems unlikely that a pilot who intended to crash his airplane into the sea would fly it for four hours first. If the plane did crash into the Indian Ocean, most likely accidentally–or possibly as a result of a Flight-93 type passenger revolt?–debris will eventually be found. 
2) The hijackers may have prepared a place, perhaps on an island in the Indian Ocean, possibly in eastern Pakistan, to land the airplane, and they may have landed it successfully. This would not be easy: a Boeing 777 needs a runway around two miles long. But it may be possible. If that is the case, then why haven’t we heard from the hijackers? If they are terrorists (e.g., radical Muslims) they may intend to use the airplane in a terrorist attack and will not reveal themselves until they have an opportunity to do so. It has been speculated that the hijackers might have been criminals rather than political terrorists, and their objective may have been to land the airplane safely, and then ransom the plane and the more than 200 passengers. On this scenario, however, they would want to get the ransom underway as soon as possible, and we presumably would have heard from them by now. 
3) The hijackers may have prepared a place to land the airplane, but failed to land it. If the airplane crashed while attempting to land, the debris will eventually be found, and its location along with other evidence (i.e., a nearby landing strip) should make it apparent that this is what was going on.
Unfortunately, my bet is on Number 2. I have this nightmare that the passengers have all been murdered and the plane is now being prepared for use in a dirty bomb or EMP attack.

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