MH370 report reveals 17-minute delay in querying
It took 17 minutes for air traffic controllers to realise that Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had disappeared from their screens – and four hours to launch a rescue operation, according to documents issued on Thursday night by the Malaysian government.
The report, which was released with the plane’s cargo manifest, seating plan, and audio recordings of conversations between the pilots and air traffic controllers, also called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to consider real-time tracking of passenger airplanes.
The timing of the plane’s disappearance was one of the details that first aroused suspicions that it might have been done deliberately: it happened at the boundary of air traffic control zones, two minutes after authorities in Kuala Lumpur told the pilots they should next contact Vietnamese officials. They never did so – prompting workers in Ho Chi Minh city to raise the alarm. Kuala Lumpur has been widely criticised for its handling of the plane’s disappearance.
Doug Maclean, air traffic control consultant at DKM Aviation, said the delay in querying the missing plane was “extraordinary”. He said: “If an aeroplane went missing on a handover between two countries you would expect some kind of action within 3 to 5 minutes maximum. In Europe or America you would be on the phone within three minutes – 17 minutes is quite an extraordinary length of time.”
“We have procedures going over vast oceans where you might wait 30 or 40 minutes for a position report but in a radar environment you can see an aeroplane on the screen – so if you can’t see it, why is it not there?”
MH370 disappeared shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur at 12.41am on 8 March, bound for Beijing, with 239 people on board. Investigators believe it was deliberately diverted but say they have not ruled out any possibility.
Vietnamese air traffic control began asking about the whereabouts of the plane at 1.38am local time, after it disappeared from their radar screens and did not make verbal contact. Nearby aircraft were asked to contact it if they could and Kuala Lumpur air traffic control tried the airline and counterparts in Singapore, Hong Kong and Phnom Penh as it searched for the plane. Malaysian air traffic controllers did not activate the search and rescue operation until 5.30am, and do not appear to have contacted military authorities before activating the rescue – a four-hour period during which military radar showed a plane believed to be MH370 crossing Malaysia.
At 2.03am the Malysian air traffic controllers told their Vietnamese counterparts that, according to Malaysian Airlines, the aircraft was in Cambodian airspace. Only at 3.30am did they clarify that the supposed position was a projection based on the earlier flight path, and not based on any current signal.
Planes normally communicate with the ground via their transponders – which communicate with ground-based radars – and Acars systems. In the case of MH370, both of those systems appear to have been disabled around the time that the plane disappeared; the last Acars message was at 1.07am and the last transponder contact at 1.21am.
But the Acars system continued to make contact with satellites, and data shows that the plane flew on for several hours, with the last “handshake” at 8.19am. Specialist analysis of those contacts led Malaysia Airlines to announce weeks ago that it believed the flight ended in the southern Indian Ocean with the loss of all lives.
The preliminary report states: “While commercial air transport aircraft spend considerable amounts 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. This uncertainty resulted in significant difficulty in locating the aircraft in a timely manner.
“Therefore, the Malaysian Air Accident Investigation Bureau makes the following safety recommendation to ICAO: it is recommended that the International Civil Aviation Organisation examine the safety benefits of introducing a standard for real time tracking of commercial air transport aircraft.”
No one at the ICAO headquarters in Canada was available for comment at time of writing.
Some experts have suggested that flight data and cockpit voice recorders should stream information during flights. Others have asked whether it should be made impossible to disable transponders.
Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said Malaysian military radar tracked an aircraft – now known to be MH370 – turning back across the Malay peninsula, but the operator categorised it as friendly so took no further action.
The radar data was reviewed at 8.30am on 8 March and within hours the prime minister ordered search and rescue operations to begin in the Straits of Malacca, off the west coast, in addition to the South China Sea search that had already begun. But news of a possible turn-back was not revealed until the following day, and even then no detail was offered.
The report was issued as the airline announced it will close the family support centres it has set up in hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing within the week and urged relatives to await further news “within the comfort of their own homes, with the support and care of their families and friends”.
Its CEO, Ahmed Jauhari Yahya, said the company was “acutely conscious of, and deeply sympathetic to the continuing unimaginable anguish, distress and hardship suffered by those with loved ones on board the flight”.
It also said it would make advanced compensation payments to the relatives, which would not affect their rights to claim compensation at a later stage.
Search teams picked up signals they believe came from the aircraft’s black boxes last month, far off the west coast of Australia. But the flight data and cockpit voice recorders have yet to be found.
Earlier in the week, the aerial search for wreckage was called off on the assumption that any debris from the plane would have sunk already and the head of the Australian centre overseeing operations warned that they would be “doing well” if they completed an expanded search of the seabed within eight months.