Authorities announced Tuesday that they will expand the search area for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared without warning early Saturday with 239 people on board.
Widespread speculation about what might have caused the plane to go missing has run rampant since it vanished, ranging from pilot error, to technical malfunction, to even hijacking and terrorism.
As the frantic search to locate the missing jet continues, we attempt to answer some of the more perplexing questions stemming from the mysterious disappearance of Flight 370.
1. Where was the plane going and where is its last known location?
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia en route to Beijing, China, at 12:41 am, carrying 227 passengers, including three Americans and 12 crew members.
The plane was expected to land in Beijing at 6:30 am after traveling 2,700 miles. According to reports, radar was able to track the flight as it traveled from Malaysia’s mainland and crossed over the Gulf of Thailand from the eastern coast at 35,000 feet before it disappeared.
Roughly 45 minutes after takeoff, air traffic controllers in Subang, Malaysia, lost contact with the plane as it crossed into Vietnamese airspace. Evidence has since surfaced that the passenger jet’s transponder was either turned off or malfunctioned, at which point civil aviation monitors could no longer pinpoint its location.
A senior Malaysian Air Force official informed search teams that the military was able to track the plane on its radars after controllers lost contact, reporting that their information last showed the flight traveling over the tiny island of Pulau Perak in the Straight of Malacca.
This suggests that the plane somehow diverged from its planned flight path by hundreds of miles and that it was flying in the opposite direction of its scheduled destination in Beijing.
2. How could a Boeing 777 simply disappear?
Currently, air traffic controllers use the same radar tracking system to monitor a flight’s progress that has been in use since the early days of commercial aviation. While the system works well over land, it is nearly impossible to track a flight over a large body of water or in a mountainous range.
Planes flying in these blind zones adhere to established routes maintaining a distance of 50 nautical miles from other planes in order to avoid collisions. When outside the reach of radar towers, air traffic controllers only have a general idea of where a plane might be at any given time.
If a catastrophic event occurs while the plane is flying outside of radar zones, officials can only rely on projected flight paths and limited information while trying to determine where a plane might have gone missing.
3. You noted that the search area has been expanded. Where are authorities now focusing their efforts, and how far might the plane have drifted?
Malaysia Airlines released a statement Monday announcing that the search teams “have expanded the scope beyond the flight path to the West Peninsula of Malaysia at the Straights of Malacca,” following an earlier announcement that the western coast of Malaysia was “now the focus.”
The search area has now doubled in size to cover 27,000 square miles across the South China Sea, roughly the same size as Massachusetts.
The decision to reorganize and expand the search beyond the planned flight path comes as officials look into the possibility that Flight 370 tried to turn back to Malaysia while crossing the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam.
If the plane, in fact, attempted to turn back toward Kuala Lumpur, there is the potential that it could have crashed into the sea on the western coast of Malaysia, opposite the eastern side where it was first reported missing.
4. How is it possible that search teams have yet to discover debris from the plane?
Part of the problem might be that they are not looking in the right places. Early in the investigation, a Vietnamese search plane spotted an oil slick in the area that fell along Flight 370’s planned route. Rescue teams focused on this area hoping it would lead them to the plane, but no additional evidence from a wreckage could be found.
In light of new evidence that suggests the plane strayed significantly from its planned flight path, combined with the fact that a Boeing 777 travels at a rate of 10 miles per minute, it’s difficult to determine whether search teams are anywhere close to where debris might have drifted.
5. Speaking of search parties, who exactly is involved in the recovery effort?
The search party is comprised of 42 ships and 39 aircraft from 12 countries, which are part of a global effort to assist Malaysian officials who are leading the recovery campaign.
Those officials put in a request to experts from the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to lend their experience in analyzing radar data to help them determine the plane’s actual flight path.
6. Why can’t they use signals from “black boxes” or transponders to find the plane?
Black boxes record data from the plane and communications between the aircraft’s crew and air traffic controllers on the ground. They do not, however, transmit live flight data or tracking information.
If a plane crashes, its black box will automatically transmit a homing beacon, but its maximum range only extends about two miles, and even less if it is underwater.
As mentioned earlier, the plane’s transponders were either shut off or stopped working due to some technical malfunction. Therefore, unless search parties are close to the actual crash site, it is unlikely that sonar will locate the black box’s signals.
7. What’s the deal with the two Iranian men who used stolen passports to purchase their tickets for the flight?
Two Iranian citizens on Flight 370 were confirmed to have purchased tickets and boarded the plane using stolen passports. The news led some to speculate whether the plane was brought down by the individuals in an act of terrorism.
International and Malaysian police authorities, however, have determined that neither passenger was linked to a terrorist group.
Nineteen-year-old Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, was using a stolen Austrian passport in order to travel to Germany where he was planning to meet his mother, and Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar, 29, used an Italian passport to board the plane.
The two were believed to have been traveling together, but there is little evidence to suggest that there was anything nefarious behind their venture.
8. How could they be allowed to use stolen passports to board the plane?
Unfortunately, the practice is rather common due to deficiencies in international travel security practices.
Currently, there is no universal system in place that allows aviation hubs to check for stolen passports, despite the fact that Interpol has been maintaining a database for them since 2002, which is searched by authorities more than 800 million times each year.
According to Interpol, that database includes more than 40 million passports reported stolen and identifies 60,000 instances annually where passports are illegally used.
Stolen passports are especially common among Iranians due to the country’s strict travel restrictions. Henley & Partners’ travel freedom index, which analyzes and ranks ease of travel for various countries based on visa restrictions, ranks Iran 86th out of 93 countries, making it one of the more difficult nations to travel to or from.
Because Asian countries have notoriously loose visa regulations, Iranians traveling with stolen passports often travel to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in order to access Western countries and Australia. They are usually assisted by local travel agents and individuals who specialize in procuring the necessary documentation to travel to their desired final destinations.
9. You mentioned that the plane might have turned around midflight? Do we have any idea if this is true, and if so, why?
Given the new evidence that the plane was spotted by military radar hundreds of miles off its planned trajectory and heading in the wrong direction, Malaysian Air Force officials believe that the aircraft might have turned back towards its takeoff point in Kuala Lumpur.
“Something happened to that airplane, that was obviously out of the norm, that caused it to depart from its normal flight path,” said Mark Weiss, a former 777 pilot now with the Washington-based Spectrum Group consulting firm in an interview with CNN.
While no one knows for certain why the plane might have turned around, experts have speculated that terrorism or a catastrophic mechanical failure could be the cause. Given the fact that the weather conditions were ideal and the pilots did not report any problems with the plane while still in contact with air traffic controllers, it is likely that whatever is behind the plane’s disappearance is the result of a sudden event.
10. Why didn’t the pilot alert air traffic controllers if the plane was suffering a problem?
Assuming the pilots did not lose communication, there are a number of possible scenarios that might have prevented them from issuing a distress call. In an emergency, a pilot’s overarching priority is to fly the plane.
Because crews on the ground can offer little assistance if the plane is experiencing mechanical problems, they only communicate with air traffic controllers once they have fully controlled a critical situation. If the plane suffered a sudden catastrophic event, there might not have been enough time for the pilot to broadcast a mayday call.
11. Some of the news coverage suggested that relatives of some of the missing passengers reported that their phones are still ringing when they try calling? How is this possible?
may God help us all.
12. Could terrorism be behind the plane’s disappearance? Or, might one of the pilots have intentionally crashed the plane?