Missing MH370: What happened on March 8 still haunts personnel on duty

PETALING JAYA - A sense of responsibility for the missing MH370 has taken a toll on Air Traffic Controllers on duty the morning the plane disappeared on March 8.

There were 40 personnel on duty during the shift, including the Radar Controller, Flight Planner and Flight Data officers, who were directing the aircraft before handing over responsibility to their Vietnamese counterparts.

A senior Department of Civil Aviation officer told The Star some of those on duty can't help but dwell on what happened to the plane.

"They have come to talk to me and kept asking why, why why, this had happened," said the officer. "Despite assuring them they had carried out their duties, some can't let go of the incident."

He said all emergency protocol was followed immediately after MH370 disappeared off the radar.

During such emergencies there are three phases which must be followed.

The initial Alert phased in this case required the air traffic controllers or ATCs to contact their counterparts in Vietnam.

Subsequently Changi (Singapore) is contacted to determine if they had MH370 on their radar or if they were in communication with the missing aircraft.

"This had to been done within three minutes of the emergency."

Blackbox locator days away from MH370 search zone

In the subsequent Uncertainty phase, ATCs will contact all aircraft in the vicinity to determine if they were in communication with MH370 or had the plane on their radar or had visual sighting of it.

This must be done within 15 minutes and when no one could detect the plane the final Distress phase was activated.

Two search and rescue trained officers are on standby during every shift and they immediately opened the Aeronautical Rescue Co­­ordination Centre or ARCC.

"The officers called the air force, which confirmed they had detected the plane on their military radar but it had diverted from its path.

"We tried communicating with MH370 again but it didn't work.

"By the time it dropped off military radar, we had already begun planning where to search for the plane," he said.

Two weeks on, the DCA officer, who is among those coordinating the search and rescue mission at the ARCC, said he is baffled by the incident.

"We are working hard to follow up on every lead we get and we've been grateful for all the help we've been getting from other countries," he said.

However he expressed concern that time was running out.

"I am worried, the decisions we make involve people's lives and so many countries and public sentiment," he said.