As the search for a missing Malaysian Airlines plane enters its second week, mounting evidence suggests that the passenger jet may have been hijacked. The hunt for flight MH370 has turned into a criminal investigation.
The fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has been shrouded in mystery ever since it left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing in the early morning hours of March 8. More than a week after the aircraft - with 239 passengers and crew on board - lost contact with air traffic controllers off Malaysia's east coast, investigators have yet to find any firm evidence of what happened.
Conflicting theories have emerged seeking to explain the incident. But without any identified wreckage, it has been hard to establish facts, thus prolonging the painful wait for the relatives and friends of those who have gone missing. There were people from 14 different countries on board, with the majority of passengers coming from China (153) and Malaysia (38).
A 'deliberate act'
However, amid growing criticism for not sharing information earlier with international investigators, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak made an announcement on March 15 that has changed the nature of the investigation.
The premier said investigators found that the Boeing 777 had been steered west, far from its scheduled route, after someone switched off the jet's communications system and transponder. He also said that the aircraft had been airborne for a further seven hours, according to satellite and radar evidence. "These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane," he said.
Najib also pointed out that the plane's last communication with satellites placed it in one of two possible corridors: a northern corridor stretching from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, or a southern one stretching approximately from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
The PM's announcement confirmed much of what had been leaked to the media in previous days. According to a Reuters report published a day earlier, the last plot on the military radar's tracking suggested the plane was flying toward India's Andaman Islands, an archipelago between the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal.
A criminal inquiry
But Najib's statements have also led to the search being turned into a criminal inquiry, with Malaysian authorities refocusing their attention on the crew and the identity and background of the passengers on board. According to local media, a Malaysian government official said that police had raided the homes of both the captain and the co-pilot of the plane in search of any evidence that they could have been involved in foul play. In addition, it is known that two passengers boarded the plane with stolen EU passports.
Najib didn't say the plane had been hijacked, but he did stress that the search had entered "a new phase" and that authorities were looking "into every possibility." However, many aviation safety experts argue that, given the new evidence, it is very likely that the flight fell victim to foul play. "The aircraft was hijacked, either by a disgruntled crew member or by a passenger or passengers entering the cockpit and taking control by force," said Chris Yates, a UK-based aviation safety consultant.
"There is no natural cause for such a drastic diversion. Although the Malaysian PM fell short of calling it a hijack, it is merely semantics. The fact that the aircraft flew off its primary route dictates it was taken," Yates told DW, adding that whoever took control of the jet had "reasonable flight training and knowledge of air routes."
Flying under the radar
Independent aviation expert Heinrich Großbongardt has a similar view: "I don't see any kind of technical failure which would make an aircraft 'invisible,' or any kind of operational situation where the crew would switch off the communications system," he said, mentioning criminal hijacking, or an act of terrorism, as possible reasons for the disappearance of the plane. However, no terrorist group to date has claimed responsibility for the missing plane.
Großbongardt also explained how it might have been possible for the plane to fly for hours without being detected by radar. "A radar station located at or near sea level is able to detect aircraft flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters," he said. However, this range decreases progressively when planes fly lower. "This is what military jets do to evade enemy radar."
Moreover, the expert said, due to the spherical shape of the Earth, the detection of any radar ends on the horizon, making civil or military radar coverage of flights more than 400 kilometers away from land virtually impossible. "Hundreds of passenger aircraft routinely cross the Atlantic or the Pacific every day flying thousands of kilometers without any radar surveillance," said Großbongardt, who is managing director of Expairtise, a Hamburg-based communications agency specialized in aviation and aerospace.
In the meantime, the search for the missing place continues. So far, around a dozen countries have been involved in scouring the seas around Malaysia. But according to Malaysia's Transportation Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, the new findings will make the search even more difficult.
"From focusing mainly on shallow seas, we are now looking at large tracts of land, crossing 11 countries, as well as deep and remote oceans. The number of countries involved in the search and rescue operation has increased from 14 to 25, which brings new challenges of coordination and diplomacy to the search effort," the minister said in a statement, adding that this amounted to a "significant recalibration of the search."
Several governments are using imagery satellites to look for the missing plane, while data from private sector communications satellites is also being analyzed. Joining in the digital search effort are over two million Internet users who have been urged by Tomnod, a crowd-sourcing platform from DigitalGlobe, to help locate the plane by scanning countless satellite images.
Finding the wreckage
Grossbongardt says that the analysis of both satellite and radar data is crucial for the ongoing investigation. But he also believes there isn't any chance of finding passengers unharmed, assuming the plane crashed over the ocean.
"We must face the fact that this aircraft has crashed somewhere at sea. Any crash on land would have triggered the Emergency Locator Transmitter, a device that sends a signal in case of a crash, which will be picked up by satellites. "It is impossible to turn this device off."
Aviation expert Yates believes one of the most significant difficulties now faced by investigators is the location of a debris field on the ocean surface which, in turn, might give the first sign of a wider and perhaps underwater debris field. However, the expert pointed out that while lighter material may still float, the debris may have already moved a considerable distance from the main body of the wreckage, given the tides and the time that has elapsed. "This could potentially lead to a long and arduous search," he said.