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Insight - Planning could hold key to disappearance of Flight MH370

Posted: 17 Mar 2014 09:00 PM PDT

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Whoever reached across the dimly lit cockpit of a Malaysia Airlines jet and clicked off a transponder to make Flight MH370 vanish from controllers' radars flew the plane into a navigational and technical black hole.

By choosing that exact place and time to vanish into radar darkness with 238 others on board, the person - presumed to be a pilot or a passenger with advanced knowledge - appears to have acted only after meticulous planning, according to aviation experts.

Understanding the sequence that led to the unprecedented plane hunt widening across two vast tracts of territory north and south of the Equator is key to grasping the motives of what Malaysian authorities suspect was hijacking or sabotage.

By signing off from Malaysian airspace at 1.19 a.m. on March 8 (1719 GMT March 7) with a casual "all right, good night," rather than the crisp radio drill advocated in pilot training, a person now believed to be the co-pilot gave no hint of anything unusual.

Two minutes later, at 1.21 a.m. local time, the transponder - a device identifying jets to ground controllers - was turned off in a move that experts say could reveal a careful sequence.

"Every action taken by the person who was piloting the aircraft appears to be a deliberate one. It is almost like a pilot's checklist," said one senior captain from an Asian carrier with experience of jets, including the Boeing 777.

The radio call does not prove it was the co-pilot who turned off the transponder. Pilots say the usual practice is that the pilot not in control of the plane talks on the radio.

Police have searched the premises of both the captain and co-pilot and are checking the backgrounds of all passengers.

But whoever turned the transponder to "off," did so at a vulnerable point between two airspace sectors when Malaysian and Vietnamese controllers could easily assume the airplane was each others' responsibility.

"The predictable effect was to delay the raising of the alarm by either party," David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flight International, wrote in an industry blog.

That mirrors delays in noticing something was wrong when an Air France jet disappeared over the Atlantic in 2009 with 228 people on board, a gap blamed on confusion between controllers.

Yet whereas the Rio-Paris disaster was later traced to pilot error, the suspected kidnapping of MH370's passengers and crew was carried out with either skill or bizarre coincidences.

Whether or not pilots knew it, the jet was just then in a technically obscure sweet spot, according to a top radar expert.

Air traffic controllers use secondary radar which works by talking to the transponder. Some air traffic control systems also blend in some primary radar, which uses a simple echo.

But primary radar signals fade faster than secondary ones, meaning even a residual blip would have vanished for controllers and even military radar may have found it difficult to identify the 777 from other ghostly blips, said radar expert Hans Weber.

"Turning off the transponder indicates this person was highly trained," said Weber, of consultancy TECOP International.


The overnight flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur is packed year-round with business people, Chinese tourists and students, attracted in part by code-sharing deals, regular travellers say.

The lockdown of MH370 may have begun as early as 40 minutes into the flight at a point when meals are being hurriedly served in time to get trays cleared and lights dimmed for the night.

"It was a red-eye flight. Most people - the passengers and the crew - just want to rest," a Malaysia Airlines stewardess said. "Unless there was a reason to panic, if someone had taken control of the aircraft, they would not have noticed anything."

At some point between 1.07 a.m. and 1.37 a.m., investigators believe someone switched off another system called ACARS designed to transmit maintenance data back to the ground.

The explanation of the timing has shifted after Malaysian officials initially said it was turned off before the pilot last spoke at 1:19 a.m. But it could have been done later as well, although before 1:37 a.m., when the system was to make another transmission, which it did not.

By itself, switching off ACARS was unusual but would not necessarily have raised alarms at the airline and the passengers would not have known something was amiss, said some of the six pilots contacted by Reuters, none of whom agreed to be named.

"Occasionally, there are gaps in the communications systems and the guys in ground operations may not think much of it initially. It would be a while before they try to find out what was wrong," said one captain with an Asian carrier.

Cutting the datalink would not have been easy. Instructions are not in the Flight Crew Operating Manual, one pilot said.

Circuit-breakers used to disable the system are in a bay reached through a hatch in the floor next to the lefthand front exit, close to a galley used to prepare meals.

Most pilots said it would be impossible to turn off ACARS from inside the cockpit, although two people did not rule it out.


After the transponder was turned off, the northeast-bound jet took a northwestern route from the sea off Kota Bahru in eastern Malaysia to Penang Island. It was last detected on military radar around 200 miles northwest of Penang.

Even that act of going off course may not have caused alarm at first if it was handled gradually, pilots said.

"Nobody pays attention to these things unless they are aware of the direction that the aircraft was heading in," said one first officer who has flown with Malaysia Airlines.

The airline said it had reconstructed the event in a simulator to try to figure out how the jet vanished and kept flying for what may have been more than seven hours.

Pilots say whoever was then in control may have kept the radio on in silent mode to hear what was going on around him, but would have avoided restarting the transponder at all costs.

"That would immediately make the aircraft visible ... like a bright light. Your registration, height, altitude and speed would all become visible," said an airline captain.

After casting off its identity, the aircraft set investigators a puzzle that has yet to be solved. It veered either northwards or southwards, within an hour's flying time of arcs stretching from the Caspian to the southern Indian Ocean.

The best way to avoid the attention of military radars would have been to fly at a fixed altitude, on a recognised flight path and at cruising speed without changing course, pilots say.

Malaysian officials dismissed as speculation reports that the jet may have flown at low altitude to avoid detection.

But pilots said the best chance of feeling its way through the well-defended northern route would have been to hide in full view of military radar inside commercial lanes - raising awkward questions over security in several parts of the Asia-Pacific.

"The military radar controllers would have seen him moving on a fixed line, figured that it was a commercial aircraft at a high altitude, and not really a danger especially if he was on a recognised flight path," said one pilot.

"Some countries would ask you to identify yourself, but you are flying through the night and that is the time when the least attention is being paid to unidentified aircraft. As long as the aircraft is not flying towards a military target or point, they may not bother with you."

Although investigators refused on Monday to be drawn into theories, few in the industry believe a 250-tonne passenger jet could run amok without expert skills or preparation.

"Whoever did this must have had lots of aircraft knowledge, would have deliberately planned this, had nerves of steel to be confident enough to get through primary radar without being detected and been confident enough to control an aircraft full of people," a veteran airline captain told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Edgar Su, Andrea Shalal, Mark Hosenball and Anshuman Daga, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Venezuela unrest toll rises as soldier is shot in head

Posted: 17 Mar 2014 08:46 PM PDT

CARACAS (Reuters) - A Venezuela National Guard captain died on Monday after being shot in the head during a demonstration, the military said, the 29th fatality in six weeks of clashes between protesters and security forces.

General Padrino Lopez, head of the armed forces' strategic operational command, said the captain was shot late on Sunday at a street barricade set up by demonstrators in the central city of Maracay, in Aragua state.

"He was another victim of terrorist violence," Lopez said on Twitter, calling for an end to the confrontations. "Our armed forces don't repress peaceful protests, they protect them."

Since early February, students and hardline opposition leaders have been calling supporters onto the streets to protest against President Nicolas Maduro and his socialist government.

The demonstrators are demanding political change and an end to high inflation, shortages of basic foods and one of the worst rates of violent crime in the world.

The protests, however, show no signs of toppling Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver who narrowly won an election in April 2013 to replace his late friend and mentor, Hugo Chavez.

Tareck El Aissami, governor of Aragua state and a member of the ruling Socialist Party, said authorities arrested a "Chinese mercenary" near where the National Guard captain was killed.

Aissami said an "arsenal" was found in the man's home, and showed video of hundreds of rounds of different calibers.

He gave the man's Venezuelan identity card number, but did not elaborate further. The government has often talked of alleged assassination plans, but rarely provides many details.

In the western border state of Tachira, which has been hardest hit by the violence, residents rebuilt some barricades overnight on streets that the authorities had cleared.

In Puerto Ordaz, in the south of the country, Reuters witnesses said riot police clashed with hundreds of students. At least two government-owned vehicles were burnt by protesters.


On Monday, the Supreme Court ordered the opposition mayors of four municipalities to remove street barricades set up by demonstrators. It issued a similar order against two opposition-run municipalities in eastern Caracas last week.

It also summoned the opposition mayor of a municipality in central Carabobo state to explain his "presumed failure" to comply with another order to remove barriers from roads.

The opposition Popular Will party said it was planning a march in Caracas on Tuesday to mark a month since its hardline leader, Leopoldo Lopez, handed himself in to face charges of fomenting unrest after helping kick off the demonstrations.

The protesters are far fewer than those who took to the streets a decade ago to oust Chavez, albeit briefly. Opposition leaders are deeply divided over the current confrontations.

During the daytime, thousands of opposition supporters have marched peacefully. Then a masked hard core has been emerging in the evenings, especially in wealthier eastern Caracas, to fight running battles with riot police and the National Guard.

Supporters of both political camps, and several members of the security forces, have been killed. Hundreds of people have been injured, and more than 1,500 have been arrested.

About 100 people remain behind bars, including 21 security officials accused of crimes ranging from brutality to homicide.

Air Canada said on Monday it was suspending flights to Caracas until further notice because of the unrest, saying it could not ensure the safety of its operation.

In the capital on Sunday, troops cleared demonstrators from Plaza Altamira, a square in the wealthy east of the capital that became the wreckage-strewn site of daily violent clashes.

National Guard soldiers posted around the plaza said they had seized home-made shields, materials for Molotov cocktails, and medicines used by the protesters to counteract tear gas.

Late on Monday, hundreds of protesters demonstrated peacefully in the square - in sharp contrast to previous nights' confrontations - singing and waving flags as police looked on.

Cenaida Pavon, a 40-year-old secretary walking through the square, said she supported the demonstrators' right to protest peacefully but not the destruction of property.

"They hate what President Chavez left behind," she said, adding that the nearby school her 8-year-old son went to had been closed since the start of the demonstrations.

"That's terrorism, not protest," Pavon said.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea in Caracas, Javier Faria in San Cristobal, and German Dam in Puerto Ordaz; Editing by James Dalgleish and Eric Walsh)

China says no evidence of hijack, terror attack by Chinese passengers

Posted: 17 Mar 2014 08:45 PM PDT

BEIJING (Reuters) - There is no evidence of Chinese passengers being involved in a hijack or terror attack on a missing Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing earlier this month, state media on Tuesday cited China's ambassador to Malaysia as saying.

(Reporting by Li Hui and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)


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