MH370: Missing plane could have kept flying four hours after disappearing, U.S. investigators say – live | Cruise Mekong River

MH370: Missing plane could have kept flying four hours after disappearing, U.S. investigators say – live

When exactly MH370 disappeared from Malaysian radar screens has become the source of much confusion today. The Guardian’s China correspondent, Tania Branigan, gives us this overview.

Details of when MH370 was last seen are highly confusing, so bear with me:

When the flight first went missing, Malaysia Airlines said repeatedly that its last contact was at 2.40am, two hours into the flight. Many people assumed this was a mistake because the last flight data available on line stopped abruptly at 1.20am, when the plane was over the South China Sea, to the east of the Malay peninsula, heading north-east towards Vietnam – and the airline subsequently revised its position, saying it was last seen at 1.30am.

This remains the last definite sighting because this was when the plane’s transponders last communicated with civil radar systems. It is assumed that they were then switched off or failed for some reason (experts say failure is rare but possible).

All of this made it very unclear why search teams were looking to the west of the peninsula, in the Strait of Malacca, as well as to the east, where the plane was last see – even given the suggestion by officials that the plane might have tried to turn back.

But on Tuesday, Malaysian media reported that the air force chief had said the plane was spotted by military radar at 2.40am close to a tiny island in the Strait of Malacca – to the west of the peninsula – and Malaysia Airlines suggested the flight might have been trying to head back to Kuala Lumpur, the airport from which it took off. The fact the timing coincided with the airline’s initial statements made people question how long the military had known of a possible sighting.

On Wednesday the air force chief then denied making the remark – though he did not say whether or not there had been a sighting at 2.40am – and posited a third possible last sighting, by military radar, at 2.15am, 200 miles northwest of Penang – in other words, far north of any previous sightings, off the coast of Thailand.

Adding to confusion even further, on Thursday a Malaysian envoy to Beijing told families the last sighting was at 2.40am in the Malacca Strait – as previously suggested.

This appears to be the key issue: the 2.15am and 2.40am sightings are on military radar, which detects and can approximately identify civilian aircraft, but does not communicate with them as civil radar would do. So on its own, this data says that a plane like the one that has gone missing was detected – but cannot establish for certain that the plane was MH370. It needs to be cross-checked with other information – such as what other flights would have been in the area, and whether there are any other readings of the craft between the military radar plot and its last definite location (over the South China Sea). The civil aviation chief has also noted that the plane might have been able to fly below the radar.

Unfortunately, the Malaysian authorities have offered no details or clarification at this stage so it is unclear how far they have got in confirming or dismissing the various sightings.

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World news: Vietnam |

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