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What happened in the first four hours when MH370 disappeared?

Answers to this simple question are confused or not in the public domain. Why not? If proper protocols had been followed we would not be looking for the aircraft today.

I am watching with some amazement, the amount of money being expended in the search of the southern Indian Ocean for MH370.  I am not convinced by the official version of the final moments of MH370.  Nor am I convinced that it is anywhere near the southern Indian Ocean and I am quite familiar with Doppler effect, satellite handshakes and all the other high tech stuff that is being promulgated!

SBS TV aired an excellent program on 5th Oct, dealing with the disappearance of MH370.  It was a BBC documentary called Where is Flight MH370

It is one of the best documentaries I have seen on the subject and it covered most of the detail and circumstances known to the general public at this point.

However, as with almost every other commentary made to date, the program studiously avoided reference to that four-hour period immediately after the aircraft disappeared. The omission of any reference to this period was blindingly obvious and made me wonder again why it is being avoided in the media and in any official commentary. Perhaps it is lack of understanding of what should have happened.

Many facts are missing, but many are available and should be released. We know that the initial period was filled with confusion and even misinformation from the airline itself which, at one stage, told ATC that it had contact with the aircraft in Cambodian airspace.  This was found to be completely incorrect and the flight had never entered Cambodian airspace.  In any case, it was not valid for the air traffic controllers to accept this information if they had not been in contact with the aircraft and had not given a clearance for it to deviate from its track. 

The BBC documentary did refer, briefly, to the stunning inaction of the Vietnamese controller, in Ho Chi Minh centre, who took 17 minutes to ask the Malaysian controller why MH370 had not transferred to his radio frequency as had been expected.

That should have happened within two to three minutes of the expected transfer time when MH370 was instructed to establish contact with Ho Chi Minh control at the boundary of their airspace.

There has not been any explanation as to why the Vietnamese controller took so long to check on the aircraft for which he was then responsible.   This is a serious matter and needs to be explained!

An explanation is also needed as to why the controller in Kuala Lumpur did not initiate a call to Ho Chi Minh centre when he saw the MH370 data block disappear from his screen.  Did he not want to know why that had occurred?

The BBC documentary made no further reference to that lack of coordination and the program continued with diagrams and reference to the Malaysian military having tracked the aircraft across the Malaysian peninsula, out to the MalaccaStraits and then the AndamanSea.

The program reported the Malaysian authorities as saying that there had been heavy security issues surrounding the tracking of the aircraft so they had not been able to reveal this immediately. 

We have also been told that the military determined that it was a civil aircraft and, therefore, of no concern to them.

Frankly, that is absolute RUBBISH either way you look at it!

Every professional pilot and military person knows that EVERY country maintains surveillance of its airspace to the best of its technical capability.  Everyone knows that Malaysia has a military radar system which monitors ALL flights in its area of responsibility.  The ex-Deputy PM, Anwar Ibrahim, who the current authorities keep trying to silence, recently stated on BBC TV that he had authorised a state of the art military surveillance system to be installed whilst he was Deputy PM of Malaysia. 

So, what secret was there and what were they so protective about?   What needed to be kept secret from the world even when 239 people were lost?

What should have happened, under international protocols that are well established and published in various operational documents, was that the Malaysian Air Force should have investigated the then unidentified aircraft they were tracking to ensure that it was not a threat to Malaysia.

The first action would have been for the military air defence officer to contact the civil air traffic controller and discuss the unidentified radar target to try to establish its identity.  In any case the civil controller should have contacted his military counterpart to ask him to assist with finding MH370.  The military system does not need a transponder to be operating on the aircraft and can identify a blip on its system without any transmission from the aircraft.

This simple coordination between military and civil officers should have solved the issue then and there.  It is hard to believe that this did not occur.

Did the military air defence officer make an assumption that he was tracking a civil aircraft that posed no threat to Malaysia, or did he know??   If he was certain, we need to ask how he knew?  If he was making an assumption, then he was prepared to risk the security of his nation.

Did the civil air traffic controller not think to ask the military for their assistance in tracking his missing aircraft?  It is very difficult to believe that he would not have used all possible resources available to him to find MH370 at that point.  A blindingly obvious resource would be the military air defence radar system.  One of the civil ATC officer’s first actions should have been a call to his military counterpart to ask if he had any unidentified aircraft on radar.

The next action is that both military and civil personnel should have attempted to establish radio contact with the unidentified aircraft.  The Vietnamese controller should also have been doing this on his own radio frequency.  They did ask another Malaysian Airlines flight to try to contact MH370 but this was not successful.

If no communication was established, then the Malaysian Air Force should have sent an interceptor aircraft to allow the military pilot to identify and follow the unidentified aircraft to find out where it was headed.  There should not have been any consideration, at that point, of shooting the intruder out of the sky, as was suggested by the Malaysian Defence Minister on BBC TV.  It was purely a matter of identification.

If they had done so, we would not be looking for the aircraft now, the families would know what had happened and millions of dollars could have been saved.  

There is absolutely no secret about the Malaysian Air Force ability to track an aircraft in their airspace, so why did they withhold vital information for several days?  Why did they not assist in the search and reveal that they tracked it on radar flying out to the AndamanSea?

What is the secret they were guarding?? 

What prevented them from tracking the aircraft and sending up an interceptor aircraft to follow it and try to communicate with it?

Why is there still no information in the public domain about what happened that night during the first four hours?

Some of the answers to this conundrum are readily available but are being withheld.

The Malaysians released the voice record and transcript of the conversations between the aircraft and the KL air traffic controllers.  I believe they thought this would satisfy people, and it probably has in many cases.  However, what we all need to understand is that everything is recorded in the operational environment. 

That first four hours is all on official record and will explain much of what occurred. 

There are several recordings which have not been released and they are all on separate recorders / hard disks.

1.       There is the pilot / air traffic controller recording which we have all heard and read in the media.

2.       There is a separate recording of the voice coordination between the air traffic controllers in Kuala Lumpur and in Ho Chi Minh City.  This coordination is done via a voice / data link between the control centres and the pilots do not hear it.   This is fully recorded and kept for a minimum of 30 days.

3.       There is another recording of the communications between the military air defence officer who was tracking the “unknown” aircraft and anyone else he talked to.  There would definitely be a recording of any conversation between him and the civil air traffic controller in the KL control centre, if they did in fact talk to each other.  If they did not talk to each other in these circumstances I would call it criminal negligence.

4.       All telephone conversations into and out of the military centre and the civil ATC centre are recorded also.  So, any conversations between Malaysian Airlines and the ATC centre would be recorded and available.

It is important to understand that all of this information is available and should be carefully examined by the air safety investigators who are charged with finding out what happened to MH370.  However, it should, in these circumstances, also be made available to the families or their independent investigators to allow an assessment of what happened.

Given that the Australian tax payers are now funding a massive search in the southern Indian Ocean, I believe that this information should also be made available to improve our understanding of what happened.

Nobody can tell us that the recordings do not exist.   The communications technology used is very sophisticated and operates through an unbreakable, system known as a Voice Switch.  The recording is the ground-based equivalent of the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder (black boxes) on board the aircraft and the first thing that should have happened on the morning after the disappearance of MH370 is that the hard disks containing the recordings should have been taken out of the system and stored securely for examination by the investigators.  There should not be any possibility of loss of data or of it being over recorded by later data.

There has been no reference to these ground-based systems and it seems that the Malaysian authorities will have to be pushed into releasing those recordings.

Therein lies the issue.  Neither Malaysia nor Australia seems to wish to make this information public and could be accused of covering up vital information which would help the families and independent investigators to work out what happened.

Des Ross has been in the aviation industry for more than 35 years, as a pilot and air traffic management specialist. In that time he has been at the forefront of aircraft safety and security. Most recently he was an aviation advisor with theEU in South Sudan. He has been a global commentator on the MH370 mystery since the aircraft disappeared, appearing regularly on international media.

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