Missing MH370: Disclosures raise new questions

President French Aviation Accident Investigation Bureau Jean-Paul Troadec (left), Malaysian Minister of Defence and acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (centre) and Coordination Centre (JACC) Chief coordinator Angus Houston (right).

KUALA LUMPUR - The Transport Ministry yesterday released previously classified information on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, including the cargo manifest and audio recordings between the cockpit and Kuala Lumpur air traffic control (ATC).

The release includes the preliminary report into MH370, dated April 9; an additional document on the actions taken directly after the plane went missing on March 8; a map showing the aircraft's flight path, and the passenger seating plan.

(The full release can be accessed at www.nst.com.my.)

In a statement, acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said the data was compiled by an internal team of experts appointed by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak last week, and was released following the conclusion of the team's review.

"The prime minister has set, as a guiding principle, the rule that as long as the release of a particular piece of information does not hamper the investigation or the search operation, in the interests of openness and transparency, the information should be made public."

New disclosures include a detailed timeline document of the actions taken on March 8 between 1.38am, after the aircraft made its final contact with ATC, and 6.14am, shortly after search-and- rescue (SAR) operations were activated.

While much of the information confirms previous accounts of the flight's disappearance, the document also captured the confusion among those tracking the flight and raises new questions over whether SAR operations could have been activated sooner.

The document showed a series of exchanges beginning at 1.38am when Ho Chi Minh City ATC (HCM-ATC) in Vietnam queried Kuala Lumpur ATC (KL-ATC) on the whereabouts of MH370.

Over the next three hours, KL-ATC contacted Malaysia Airlines Operations Centre (MAS OPS), Singapore ATC, Hong Kong ATC and Phnom Penh-ATC to establish MH370's location.

PM Najib announces flight of MH370 ended in southern Indian Ocean

The communications record indicated, among others, that misleading information was received at 2.03am from MAS OPS that the aircraft had entered Cambodian airspace.

After checking with Phnom Penh ATC, however, HCM-ATC informed KL-ATC that the aircraft had never entered Cambodia.

As further attempts to establish contact with the aircraft failed, the Rescue Coordination Centre was finally activated at 5.30am.

According to the MH370 investigation team's preliminary report, the lack of real-time tracking "resulted in significant difficulty in locating the aircraft in a timely manner".

The report stated: "While commercial air transport aircraft spend considerable amount of time operating over remote areas, there is currently no requirement for real- time tracking of these aircraft. There have now been two occasions during the last five years when large commercial air transport aircraft have gone missing and their last position was not accurately known."

(While the report did not state what the other occasion was when a large commercial aircraft had gone missing, it is understood this was Air France flight AF447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, an Airbus A330 which crashed on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 passengers and crew aboard.)

Following the team's findings, the Malaysian Air Accident Investigation Bureau recommended that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) "examine the safety benefits of introducing a standard for real time tracking of commercial air transport aircraft".

The ministry also clarified previous reports on the plane's movements as recorded by Malaysian military radar.

According to the ministry's account, the Malaysian military's primary radar tracked an aircraft, believed to be MH370, making an air turn back in a westerly direction across Peninsular Malaysia on the morning of March 8. The aircraft was categorised as friendly by the radar operator and, therefore, no further action was taken at the time.

The radar data was reviewed in a playback at approximately 8.30am on March 8, and the information was sent to the Royal Malaysian Air Force operations room at approximately 9am.

Following further discussions up the chain of command, the RMAF informed Hishammuddin at approximately 10.30am of the aircraft's possible turn back.

The minister then informed Najib, who immediately ordered SAR operations be initiated in the Straits of Malacca, along with the South China Sea operations, which started earlier in the day.

The preliminary report was drafted with the involvement of the United States' National Transportation Safety Board, the United Kingdom's Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, China's Air Accidents Investigation Department, the Civil Aviation Administration of China and Malaysian officials.