Flight Lt. Jason Nichols on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, looks towards HMAS Success as they search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, Australia, Saturday, March 22, 2014. As planes spent a third day hunting for two large objects spotted by satellite in the southern Indian Ocean, Australian officials on Saturday said they were far from giving up on what remains the strongest lead in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, Pool) ORG XMIT: MIN2014032215061421

Rob Griffith, Dml - Associated Press - Ap

From routine to riveting: The saga of Flight 370

  • Article by: Philip P. Pan and Kirk Semple
  • New York Times
  • March 23, 2014 - 12:16 AM

The night sky was clear above the clouds, and the last glimmer of a half-moon had faded when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, cruising at 35,000 feet over the Gulf of Thailand, approached the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace on its usual route to Beijing.

What happened next should have been routine.

Air traffic controllers outside Kuala Lumpur usually hand the jet off to their counterparts in Ho Chi Minh City.

But in those early hours of March 8, pilots flying nearby heard an unusual crescendo of chatter on the radio frequencies used by radar control. Air traffic personnel were trying and failing to reach the plane.

“Any stations in contact with Malaysian 370, please relay.”

Vietnamese and Malaysian controllers asked one aircraft after another to radio the jet. Pilots listened as one plane after another tried and heard only static.

“Malaysian 370, this is Malaysian 88.”

“Malaysian 370, this is Malaysian 52.”

People who heard the calls, describing them for the first time, said they were calm, even laconic. The pilots trying to reach the airliner had no reason to believe it had suffered anything more than an ordinary radio malfunction. But those initial attempts to find a plane in the skies would soon evolve into an urgent multinational search operation spanning land and sea in two hemispheres. They signaled the start of what has become perhaps the most perplexing case in the history of modern aviation — one that investigators say may take years to solve, or could remain a mystery forever.

More than two weeks after Flight 370 disappeared, unbridled speculation surrounds the unfolding global drama. So much is uncertain about what happened on the plane, and so much of what has been disclosed by Malaysian authorities has been contradicted, that no theory of its fate can be easily dismissed. On Saturday, the authorities said a Chinese satellite had detected a possible object floating in the southern Indian Ocean in the area that is now the focus of the search operation.

Based on dozens of interviews, this report presents a portrait of Flight 370 and the search to find it using what is known to date. But by necessity, it is an incomplete picture.

The oldest passenger had ‘cheated death’

Malaysia Airlines sends two jetliners from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysia capital, to Beijing every day. Flight 370, which departs at 12:35 a.m. and lands at 6:30 a.m., is often cheaper.

Passengers are advised to arrive at least two hours in advance. On March 7, a delegation of 34 Chinese artists, relatives and organizers who had spent the past five days participating in an art exhibit in Kuala Lumpur played it safe with the city’s unpredictable Friday night traffic and arrived about 8 p.m.

Perhaps the most prominent of the artists was the flight’s oldest passenger, Liu Rusheng, 77, a calligrapher who had published an essay about how much he treasured life because he had “cheated death” six times, beginning with his abandonment as an infant by parents fleeing Japanese soldiers.

Daniel Liau, the delegation’s host, said Liu had “the energy of a young man.” He helped Liu and the other artists check their luggage. They stood chatting under the modernist scalloped ceilings of the main terminal for about 90 minutes.

Boarding began about midnight. The airline would have allowed the elderly — including Liu and his wife, Bao Yuanhua, 73 — and the families traveling with the two infants booked on the flight to get settled first. Next came the passengers holding passes for the 35 seats in business class.

Philip Wood, 50, an IBM executive from Texas and a regular on the flight because he was relocating from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur, held an economy ticket but hoped to be upgraded. He had long legs and was the holder of platinum frequent-flier card, said his partner, Sarah Bajc, 48, a teacher.

Bajc said she exchanged a dozen text messages with him before the flight about the movers, scheduled to arrive at their home in Beijing the next morning. “We discussed the state of packing, what still needed to be done,” she said. His last message came just before he left for the airport.


One of the world’s most popular and safe jets

The plane the passengers boarded was a Boeing 777, one of the world’s most popular and advanced passenger jets, and Boeing’s first fly-by-wire commercial aircraft, in which electronic controls replaced manual ones. Pilots send commands that are conveyed to the wings and other components, and a computer helps keep the plane steady.

The “Triple Seven,” as it often called, has all but replaced the 747 because it is cheaper to operate and can fly up to 16 hours without refueling. It also has one of the industry’s best safety records, with only two serious accidents in the 19 years it has been in service.

Malaysia Airlines, the nation’s state-run carrier, began using the Boeing 777 in 1997 and eventually had 15 of them in its fleet. One of them, the 404th model to roll off Boeing’s assembly line in Everett, Wash., was delivered to the airline in May 2002 and registered with tail number 9M-MRO. It was this plane that was used for Flight 370 and has disappeared.

By the time it pulled away from the gate at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 8, the plane had completed more than 7,500 flights and clocked over 53,400 hours in the air. That put it well within the average economic life of 23 years.

In other words, there was little to distinguish this plane from the roughly 1,170 other Boeing 777s now in use. That is why it is so important for investigators to determine if the plane’s disappearance was due to any malfunction or defect.

“The industry does not like uncertainty,” said Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “We will find out what happened.”


Hand towels, fruit juice for some passengers

As they stepped onto the plane, the 227 passengers of Flight 370 were greeted by the flight attendants, four women in sarong kebayas and six men in gray three-piece suits. Some distributed hand towels, fruit juice and newspapers in business class; others helped those in economy find their seats.

Outside, ground crews loaded the passenger luggage into the jet’s cargo hold, which can carry up to six pallets and 14 ­shipping containers. The airline said there were no hazardous or valuable goods on the flight. But among the cargo was a “significant” amount of lithium batteries — which can be flammable — more than is typically sent in a shipment, one U.S. official said.

After the doors closed, the chief steward, Andrew Nari, would have welcomed the passengers via the loudspeaker and reminded them to turn off their cellphones. Before shutting off his own, he sent a message to his mother. “It was just a normal SMS telling me that his plane would fly off soon,” she later told The Star, a local newspaper.

In the cockpit were the pilots: the captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, a veteran aviator who joined the airline in 1981 and had 18,365 hours of flying experience, and his first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, who was transitioning to the Boeing 777 from the airline’s narrow-body fleet.

The plane taxied to runway 32R. With two Rolls-Royce Trent engines each capable of generating more than 93,000 pounds of thrust, the jet raced down the 2.5-mile-long runway and lifted off at 41 minutes after midnight. As the plane banked and climbed, passengers on the left side might have spotted the glow of Kuala Lumpur and perhaps the Petronas Towers in the distance.

At 1:07 a.m., as the jet approached the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, ground crews received what the authorities have described as a routine text message from the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System that sends regular updates on the condition of the plane by radio or satellite.

As the plane approached Vietnamese airspace, Sebang informed the pilots that they were being transferred to radar control in Ho Chi Minh City. At 1:19 a.m., a voice identified by the authorities as that of the first officer, Fariq, replied, “All right, good night.”

Two minutes later, Flight 370’s transponder stopped responding. One moment, radar scopes showed the plane traveling northwest at 542 mph. The next moment, it was gone. The military in Vietnam marked the time at 43 seconds past 1:20 a.m.


The mystery deepens as time drags on

As air traffic controllers struggled to re-establish contact with Flight 370, military radar on Malaysia’s west coast picked up an unidentified aircraft near where the plane disappeared.

But the watch team, normally an officer and three enlisted personnel, either failed to notice the signal or decided not to designate and track it as a “zombie,” which would have pushed the information up the chain of command and possibly alerted air command.

At a briefing the next night, about 80 air force personnel were told there was “no proof” the unidentified signal showed the missing plane making a sharp turn, flying back across Malaysia and then turning again and heading northwest over the Strait of Malacca, a person familiar with the situation said.

But investigators now believe that is exactly what happened.

By that Sunday afternoon, the engineers used the principles of trigonometry to determine the distance between the satellite and the plane at the time of each ping, and then to calculate two rough flight paths.

The plane, they concluded, had turned again. But it may have then traveled in more or less a straight line, heading north over countries likely to have picked it up on radar, or south toward the Indian Ocean and Antarctica.

By then, more than a week had passed since the last satellite ping, recorded at 8:11 a.m. on March 8, halfway around the world from where the plane should have been, on a tarmac in Beijing.


© 2018 Star Tribune