Monday, March 24, 2014

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak Says Airlines Plane Went Down in Indian Ocean,0,471403.story

Premier says Malaysia Airlines plane went down in Indian Ocean

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak says the conclusion is based on data from British satellite firm Inmarsat. The search for Flight 370 wreckage continues.

By Don Lee, Ralph Vartabedian and Barbara Demick
8:29 PM PDT, March 24, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The prime minister's announcement that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went down in the Indian Ocean with no survivors marked a major turn in the search for the missing jet but did little to explain why it went off course in the first place.

Despite the reported sightings of debris that may have come from the Boeing 777, crews had been unable to recover any of it.

Australian maritime officials suspended the search again Tuesday because of high waves and powerful gales.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said his announcement late Monday was based on an analysis by the British satellite company Inmarsat, fixing the plane's last known location southwest of Perth, Australia, in one of the world's most remote areas. But experts were critical of the announcement of such a conclusion without confirmed physical evidence of wreckage.

The airliner went off course and disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8.

Time was increasingly a concern because the plane's flight and data recorders have a battery life of about 30 days. Without the so-called black boxes, investigators have little or no evidence to support either of the two main theories about what happened to the jet, which carried 239 passengers and crew: that a mechanical failure killed or incapacitated the crew, or that a crew member or hijacker took over the plane. In either case, its last known location indicates it may have flown for hours until it ran out of fuel.

The hunt for the plane intensified Monday as search crews reported more sightings of possible debris in the southern Indian Ocean, including two objects they said could be retrieved shortly by the Australian naval vessel Success. One was described as circular and gray or green in color. The other was said to be rectangular and orange.

With China and Japan joining an Australian-led team of American and New Zealand planes, 10 military and commercial aircraft in all combed an area of about 20,000 square nautical miles. Earlier in the day, one of two Chinese Ilyushin 76 aircraft reported seeing "two big floating objects with many white smaller ones scattered within a radius of several kilometers," according to the official New China News Agency.

But with the forecast calling for heavy rain, huge swells and gales of up to 50 mph, Australian officials said the Success had been forced to withdraw to a safer area.

"The current weather conditions would make any air and sea search activities hazardous and pose a risk to crew," maritime officials said in a statement. The Success had been unable to locate the two objects, which the defense minister has said would be retrieved by Tuesday morning.

Inmarsat previously reported that it had received "handshake" signals from the plane, attempting to establish communication with the company's satellite. Analysis of those signals led investigators to believe the plane followed one of two tracks, one as far north as Central Asia or to the far south into the Indian Ocean.

The company told British media that it had eliminated the northern route by analyzing frequency shifts in the signal.

"We looked at the Doppler effect, which is the change in frequency due to the movement of a satellite in its orbit," said Chris McLaughlin, Inmarsat's senior vice president of external affairs. "What that then gave us was a predicted path for the northerly route and a predicted path for the southern route. That's never been done before; our engineers came up with it as a unique contribution."

Most of the passengers on Flight 370 were Chinese, and after Najib's announcement, paramedics rushed to the Lido Hotel in Beijing to help family members who might be overcome with grief.

Some have held out faint hope that the flight might have been hijacked, with the passengers being held somewhere for ransom.

Heavy sobs could be heard from inside a conference room at the Lido, where family members have been gathered these last two weeks. Occasionally somebody would emerge with puffy eyes and a swollen face. One man was taken away on a stretcher.

Many families have had a hard time accepting the finality of the investigation, given the lack of physical evidence.

"The announcement is on data only, no confirmed wreckage so no real closure," Sarah Bajc, a 48-year-old Beijing-based teacher whose partner, Philip Wood, was a passenger on the flight, said in an email.

There have been several reported satellite sightings of debris in the general area where the plane is thought to have gone down, but experts have noted the lack of any such announcements from the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. agency that operates what are generally considered the most capable satellites.

They infer that the U.S. has not found credible evidence of debris. If it had, it probably would have directed U.S. military planes and ships to the location rather than releasing images or making public statements.

The Navy said Monday that it had dispatched an apparatus that can be towed behind a ship at slow speed to listen for "pings" from the black boxes. The device is capable of hearing a signal from a maximum depth of 20,000 feet, the Navy said.

"We just want to have this ready because time is not on our side," said Lt. Dave Levy, a spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet.

Absent the black boxes, intense speculation has focused on whether mechanical failure or human action caused the plane to disappear.

"We are going to have to pray those recorders are found," Jim Hall, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said in an interview. Hall and other experts were sharply critical of the Malaysian-led investigation.

"This investigation has been an ABC of what not to do," said Hall, citing lack of coordination, frequent revision of facts and the involvement of politicians.

Some experts cited the possibility of a mechanical failure leading to decompression of the plane and turning Flight 370 into a "ghost flight" in which everyone on board was incapacitated or dead and the aircraft flew until it ran out of fuel. Investigators concluded that is what happened to a Helios Airways Boeing 737 that crashed into a mountain near Athens in 2005, killing all 121 people aboard. The NTSB concluded that also happened to a private flight that led to the death of golfer Payne Stewart in 1999.

But Robert Ditchey, a former Navy pilot and retired U.S. airline executive, said he did not believe that any type of mechanical problem could account for the loss of the jet's transponder, the failure to switch to a backup, the failure to respond to efforts to contact the plane and other abnormalities.

"There is too much redundancy on that jet to lose navigation, transponders and radios," said John Russell, a commercial airline captain who has flown both 747s and 777s.

Lee reported from Kuala Lumpur, Vartabedian from Los Angeles and Demick from Beijing. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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