Oil Slicks Found at Sea in Search for Malaysia Jet Carrying 239

 A Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) jet with 239 people on board vanished from radar en route to Beijing, and Vietnam’s military found oil slicks suggesting the plane may have crashed at sea.

The discovery of the slicks provided the first clue in the disappearance of Flight 370, a Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200 that was an hour into a flight from Kuala Lumpur yesterday. Twin sheens of oil spread as long as 15 kilometers (9 miles) south of Vietnam’s Tho Chu island, the country’s government said.

The jet’s fate baffled the six nations searching for the aircraft, with no reports of distress calls, emergency-beacon signals or bad weather and no indications why a plane would lose touch in one of the safest phases of flight. The prospect of foul play arose after Austria and Italy said that two passengers used passports stolen from their nationals, both of them men.

asiacrash_small11 Oil Slicks Found at Sea in Search for Malaysia Jet Carrying 239

“It is very puzzling right now,” said John Cox, an accident investigator and chief executive officer at Safety Operating Systems in Washington. “We have conflicting very early lines of evidence.”

While there was no information pointing to a possible bomb or terror attack, Malaysia is studying all possibilities, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.

The stolen Austrian passport belonged to a 30-year-old man who reported the theft in 2012 in Phuket, Thailand, the foreign ministry said. He was contacted and found to be “well,” said Martin Weiss, a ministry spokesman. Luigi Maraldi, an Italian national also shown on the manifest, didn’t travel on the plane, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aldo Amati said.

Security Screening

Flight 370 departed from the Malaysian capital at about 12:41 a.m. local time yesterday and was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Security screening was performed as normal at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd. (MAHB) said in a statement.

On board the twin-engine wide-body were 227 passengers and 12 crew members, with Chinese travelers — 153, including an infant — accounting for the largest group of nationals, the airline said. Also on the plane were three U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is monitoring the situation.

“Our team is currently calling the next-of-kin of passengers and crew,” Malaysian Airline Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said. An air search that ended at nightfall yesterday will resume at daylight, the airline said.

China, Vietnam, the Philippines, the U.S. and Singapore are assisting Malaysia’s government, with the U.S. destroyer Pinckney from the Navy’s 7th Fleet among the vessels joining the hunt. President Barack Obama was briefed on the crash while on a weekend family vacation in Key Largo, Florida, said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.

Vietnam’s Patrols

The oil slicks discovered by Vietnamese military aircraft were about 140 kilometers south of Tho Chu Island in a body of water known as the Gulf of Thailand, off the South China Sea. Its maximum depth is about 80 meters (.05 mile), according to Thailand’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources.

Malaysia’s last communication with the jet was “normal,” said Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Department of Civil Aviation. The agency last contacted the pilot before it handed over the aircraft to Vietnamese authorities, he said. Contact was lost one minute before the plane entered Vietnam’s airspace, its government said on its website.

The plane disappeared from Malaysian radar at 1:30 a.m. and the department informed the airline at 2:40 a.m., Azharuddin said. The carrier said the last radar contact with the plane was about 120 nautical miles east of Kota Bahru, near the South China Sea.

Cruising Altitude

FlightAware, a Houston-based compiler of global air-traffic information, gave the last known altitude of the Malaysian Airline jet as 35,000 feet, when it was flying a northeasterly course at 539 mph. Such an airspeed and altitude would be typical of a 777 in cruise mode.

The sudden loss of a plane may suggest a mid-air breakup, which could be caused by a structural failure or an explosion, including one triggered by a bomb, said Cox, the Washington-based accident investigator. A violent breakup would shred the jet into pieces, many of them small and light enough to float, creating a prominent debris field.

Cox said he was unaware of any reports of such wreckage. A plane descending intact after an inflight emergency, whether caused by mechanical failure or pilot error, would leave less surface debris and be harder to spot, he said. In those cases, the crew typically would have time to radio a distress call.

Boeing 777

Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and First Officer Fariq Ab. Hamid, 27, were the pilots, according to an airline statement. The captain had 18,365 flying hours and joined the company in 1981, while his first officer had 2,763 hours of flying. The first officer joined the Subang Jaya-based airline in 2007.

Boeing’s 777, the planemaker’s biggest twin-engine model, entered commercial service in 1995 and has been involved in only three accidents serious enough to destroy a plane. The only fatalities occurred in last year’s Asiana Airlines Inc. crash in San Francisco, where investigators have focused on pilot error.

“We’re closely monitoring reports on Malaysia flight MH370,” Chicago-based Boeing said on its Twitter feed. “Our thoughts are with everyone on board.” The company is assembling a team to provide technical assistance.

Malaysian Airline’s 777-200 was 11 years and 10 months old and had fuel to fly to Beijing and beyond, said Ahmad Jauhari, the airline CEO.

Safety Record

“Malaysian Air’s safety records have been very good,” said Mohshin Aziz, an analyst at Maybank Investment Bank Bhd., who described the 777 as the safest aircraft in the world. “They will likely investigate start to finish.”

Among the few accidents that occurred during cruise without a distress call was the loss of Air France Flight 447, an Airbus Group NV A330 that went down in the Atlantic Ocean while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009.

Pilots allowed the plane to get too slow after becoming confused by erroneous airspeed readings, the French Office of Investigations and Analysis concluded. The plane had flown into a storm and ice formed in the plane’s speed sensors. All 228 aboard died.

Another such case was the loss of Air India Flight 182 over the Atlantic Ocean on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 aboard. The Boeing 747, flying to London from Montreal, broke apart without warning, and circumstantial evidence suggested it was triggered by an explosion in the forward cargo compartment, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded.

Crashes triggered during cruise flight have accounted for 9 percent of all fatal accidents from 2003 through 2012, according to a review by Boeing. Those accidents tend to have a higher loss of life and accounted for 18 percent of the deaths on larger airliners during the period, Boeing found. There were 774 deaths in such cruise-flight accidents during those 10 years.

By comparison, accidents during approach and landing have accounted for more than half of crashes and fatalities during the period, according to Boeing.