A Vietnamese aircraft flies over the southern coast of Vietnam in search of missing flight MH370, March 11. (Photo/Xinhua)
A Malaysian official involved in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has contradicted public claims from the Malaysian government by saying that its military knowingly and continuously tracked the plane on radar for more than an hour after communication with ground control was severed in the early hours of March 8.
The anonymous air force official told Chinese web portal Tencent that despite initial claims that they could not be certain, the Malaysian military knew very well that the plane they were tracking on radar was flight MH370 and followed it as it climbed above the Boeing 777's approved altitude of 45,000ft and took a sharp turn to the west before descending unevenly to 23,000ft on the approach to the island of Penang. The plane then climbed back to 35,000ft and headed northwest towards the Indian Ocean, with the final reading showing it above the tiny island of Pulau Perak in the Strait of Malacca at around 2.40am.
Though they had known this all along, Malaysian authorities did not reveal this crucial information until March 15, a week after the plane's disappearance, the official said. It also meant that Malaysia knew from the beginning that the plane — if it had crashed — was likely in the Strait of Malacca region on the west side of the country as opposed to the South China Sea on the east side, where dozens of ships and aircraft from other countries searched fruitlessly for days, the official added.
The first public announcement made by Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya on Saturday morning was that the plane had remained in contact until 2:40am, but the timing was subsequently changed to 1:20am, just as communications was being handed over from Malaysian air traffic controllers to their counterparts in Vietnam.
It has since been revealed that the plane's transponder was "deliberately" switched off at 1:21am and that it had completely vanished off Malaysian civilian radar screens at roughly 1:30am. But if the official's claims are to be believed, then Malaysian authorities knew exactly where the plane was and what it was doing for another 70 minutes.
The official's revelations about Malaysia's knowledge about the flight's true last point of contact are also consistent with why Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of the Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation, said "there are some things that I can tell you and some things that I can't" when explaining why the search was being expanded to the Strait of Malacca on March 11. In fact, the official said, Malaysia had been secretly searching that region all along.
Meanwhile, the number of countries involved in the search, as it enters its ninth day, has expanded from 14 to 25 and will take in large tracts of land crossing 11 countries as well as deep and remote areas of ocean. The new focus comes after the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, declared Saturday that satellite "pings" received nearly seven hours after takeoff placed flight MH370 in two possible flight corridors: one between Thailand and Kazakhstan, and another between Indonesia and the southern Indian Ocean.
Another Malaysian air force official told Tencent that flight MH370 could have flown west as far as Somalia or north past Thailand and Myanmar to the southern part of Mongolia. The chosen flight path would have been close to the borders of several countries, where radar detection is relatively weak, the official added.
Whoever among the 239 people on board that hijacked MH370 must have been very familiar with the geography near Malaysia as well the capabilities of both civilian and military radar, the official said, adding that it is common knowledge in the aviation industry that both Somalia and southern Mongolia are places that do not require government permission to perform a landing. Somalia is effectively in a state of anarchy due to civil war, while Mongolia has several secret airports providing safe landing strips for smugglers, the official added.