The location and timing of the object described today by Malaysia’s air force chief are potentially significant. Radar picked up the unknown signal in the area of the Malacca Strait about 2:15 a.m. local time on March 8, or 45 minutes after contact was lost with the jet whose route to Beijing went over the Gulf of Thailand on the other side of the country.
“We are trying to corroborate with all the other radars, including the civil radar,” Royal Malaysian Air Force General Rodzali Daud told reporters today in Kuala Lumpur. Earlier, he had denied a Malaysia newspaper report quoting him saying that an air base had detected the jet over the strait.
Daud’s commented as the hunt for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) jet headed toward a sixth day amid confusion, dashed hopes for a resolution and signs of tension among neighbors thrown together in the search. A dozen nations — including India, Japan and Brunei — 42 ships and 39 aircraft are looking for the Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200.
“This is unprecedented, what we are going through,” Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. “Coordinating so many countries together is not something that is easy.”
Flight 370 carried 239 passengers and crew, with China accounting for about two-thirds of the travelers on board. Some ties in the multinational effort were fraying.
Malaysia didn’t notify Vietnam that it wouldn’t conduct an air search today, and the government in Hanoi is still “waiting for a response from Malaysian authorities” on reports that Flight 370 turned back toward the Malacca Strait, Deputy Transport Minister Pham Quy Tieu told reporters in the capital.
A Vietnamese search crew came up empty after searching the Vung Tau area in the nation’s southeast in response to a tip from an oil-rig worker who said he spotted what appeared to be a plane on fire. That was the area where a plane reported metal debris earlier this week, according to Vietnam’s Civil Aviation Authority.
“Nothing found today, but maybe something will pop up tomorrow,” Le Minh Thanh, deputy commander of Vietnam’s Navy, said in a briefing in Phu Quoc.
China also prodded Malaysia to conduct an immediate investigation into the question of whether Flight 370 changed course, Qin Gang, a foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement.
Malaysian air controllers lost contact with Flight 370 as it neared Vietnamese airspace flying north from Kuala Lumpur, a heading and position on the other side of Peninsular Malaysia from the Malacca Strait and the mystery radar blip. Voice contact and signals from the plane’s transponder, a beacon that enhances visibility to radar, both ended, authorities have said.
The blip reported today didn’t come from a plane’s transponder. Daud, the Air Force general, said Malaysia was working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and “all the other available radars” to identify what was spotted.
Local newspapers quoted Daud earlier as having said that the Air Force had picked up Flight 370, only to have the general respond with an e-mailed statement that “it would not be appropriate for the Royal Malaysian Air Force to issue any official conclusions as to the aircraft’s flight path until a high amount of certainty and verification is achieved.”
Three FAA representatives are in Kuala Lumpur as part of an NTSB investigative team, according an FAA statement.
A location over the Malacca Strait for Flight 370 would have required a sharp turn from the plane’s original route, raising questions about why the pilots — or whoever was in control of the jet — made such a shift.
Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein broached the idea on March 9, saying the aircraft may have made an “air turn-back.” Malaysia subsequently made the Strait of Malacca part of its search area while the hunt also continued in the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea.
Radar is an imperfect tool for tracking aircraft and is useless over large bodies of water. It develops more blind spots if a transponder fails or is switched off. The computer systems that take raw radar information and display it on video monitors also can hiccup, causing them to drop aircraft targets.
“It is the best thing we have right now to ensure we know what’s going on in the sky,” said Pat Forrey, a former U.S. controller and consultant at Forrey Associates in Washington. “But it does have its limitations.”
The absence of wreckage has kept alive various theories about the plane’s disappearance, from an accident to hijacking to sabotage.
“It’s extremely difficult to develop a search area,” said David Jardine-Smith, Secretary of the International Maritime Search and Rescue Federation, in a phone interview today. “Looking for any small item on the surface of the sea is very, very difficult. It’s literally looking for the needle in the haystack.”