Unknown journey of MH370

NEWER TERRAIN: Hope returning but the end could have moved further afield

MALAYSIA - With flight MH370 threatening to morph into the biggest aviation-intelligence crisis ever, it is the hope of the great many that the best-case scenario should be given every opportunity to survive the upcoming rigours and emotions.

This would require sustaining a theory or theories on benign treatment of the passengers and crew; and to continue to pray that after seven hours of flying, MH370 had landed somewhere.

These are the key signposts of this astounding journey, culled from the daily briefings and from the thriving analyses spawned by the missing plane.

The evasion: First, the turn

MH370 turned just as it was about to cross the Malaysia-Vietnam border for airspace administration. We now know that the ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) was disabled just before the flight reached the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, while the transponder was switched off near the Malaysian-Vietnamese air traffic control border.

While transponders are routinely switched off, pilots are not trained to disable the ACARS, which would require pre-planning, says John Lindsay, ex-head of air safety of British Airways.

The veering off, if it happened, must have been tactical rather than an emergency judgment call.

A gap exists between clearance by the Subang control tower and before entering the Vietnamese air control.

By going on a detour from no-man's space somewhere at the Malaysian-Vietnamese air control border, those navigating the plane were about to chart a new flight path, undetected.

Secondly, the irregular flight path

The New York Times, quoting unnamed sources, said after disappearing from civilian radar screens, MH370 soared to an altitude of 45,000 feet, then dipped to 23,000 feet and "made sharp turns throughout the journey, first flying west towards Penang, then shifting southwest and then going north-west over the Straits of Malacca and towards the Indian Ocean".

Sightings by four people in Kelantan

The latest development does lend credence to the sightings of four individuals in Kelantan, who told police they saw an airplane flying at a low altitude. State police chief Datuk Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman had said: "We believe that these men are sincere in lodging the reports and wanted to assist the authorities."

From Tok Bali to Diego Garcia to the edge of the Caspian Sea

The clincher information was "8.11am Saturday (Malaysian time)" being the last point of communication between the satellite and the plane. MH370 was last spotted by civilian radar at 1.30am above the Gulf of Thailand.

It must have travelled a great distance since then.

The theatre has been gradually expanded since assets were first deployed to the South China Sea.

The multinational search mission of an unprecedented scope and magnitude has already drawn 14 countries.

As governments of the two corridors, which have been identified as possible areas, where the last known communication between aircraft and satellites are being alerted, the international media will have to consider the logistics of covering the expanded theatre, such as deploying teams to exotic places such as the desert in Yemen, also Samarkhand, Bokhara, Tashkent and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uighur autonomous province, China.

A total of 153 of the MH370 passengers are Chinese nationals.

The expanded area of search features a sheer size of political zones, some with brewing issues and conflicts.

For the record, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are on the Caspian Sea, separated from the Black Sea by swathes of Russian territories and Georgia. The Crimean conflict is in the vicinity.

The search-and-rescue operation in the South China Sea has, meanwhile, ceased.

Inspector-general of police's cameo moment

A key juncture of the past week has been the press conference by Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar on Wednesday.

Until then, there was this sense in public opinion that the investigation had been rudderless, understandably so perhaps given that the focus has always been on finding the plane and the 239 people on board.

Khalid provided an idea of what could have led to the disappearance of the Boeing 777-200. Police were zooming into hijacking, sabotage, and psychological and personal issues of the passengers and crew.

The dossier of every single person aboard must have been thoroughly compiled and researched to discern plausible motives of wishing to influence the flight trajectory.

The missing flight must have since brought together the biggest collection of intelligence and anti-terrorism, and possibly, espionage experts.

Just where is the plane now?

If the plane had flown stealthily for several hours unsighted, chances are those who had piloted the plane along the new trajectory had planned its landing, too.

It is not just the pragmatist in us that is wishing that the plane had landed safely somewhere. The absence of distress signals and debris does lend this theory some hope.

This has been a believable, even coherent, chain of events that has piqued the interest of oceanographers to air accident investigators.

The unknown journey of a single Malaysian flight is about to take the global audience to newer terrain, cultures, conflicts and politics.

MH370 could well be the conversation-starter when United States President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping converge on The Hague for the March 24-25 Nuclear Security Summit.

Above all, it is the agonising wait of the next of kin that has won the story record audiences.