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Originally published March 15, 2014 at 6:14 PM | Page modified March 15, 2014 at 8:01 PM

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Missteps by Malaysia mount, complicating search for plane

Ignoring a radar blip that was Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 on March 8 was not the first, nor the last, in a series of errors by the Malaysian government that has made the complex task of finding the $50 million Boeing 777 far more difficult.


The New York Times

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Clearly Malaysian civilian and military authorities dropped the ball at numerous points... MORE

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SEPANG, Malaysia — The radar blip that was Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 did a wide U-turn over the Gulf of Thailand and began moving past at least three military radar arrays as it traversed northern Malaysia, even flying high over one of the country’s biggest cities before heading out over the Strait of Malacca.

Yet inside a Malaysian air force control room on the country’s west coast, where U.S.-made F-18’s and F-5 fighters stood at a high level of readiness for emergencies exactly like the one unfolding early March 8, a four-person air defense radar crew did nothing about the unauthorized flight. “The watch team never noticed the blip,” said a person with knowledge of the investigation.

It was not the first, nor the last, in a series of errors by the Malaysian government that has made the geographically vast and technologically complex task of finding the $50 million Boeing 777 aircraft far more difficult.

A week after the plane disappeared, the trail is even colder as the search sprawls from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to the empty expanses of the southern Indian Ocean. Nobody knows whether the delays cost the lives of any of the 239 people who boarded the flight to Beijing at Kuala Lumpur’s ultramodern airport. But the mistakes have accumulated at a remarkable pace.

“The fact that it flew straight over Malaysia, without the Malaysian military identifying it, is just plain weird, not just weird, but also very damning and tragic,” said David Learmount, the operations and safety editor for Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector.

Senior Malaysian military officers became aware within hours of the radar data once word spread that a civilian airliner had vanished. The Malaysian government nonetheless organized and oversaw an expensive and complex international search effort in the Gulf of Thailand that lasted for a full week.

Only on Saturday did Prime Minister Najib Razak shut it down after admitting what had been widely reported in the news media: Satellite data showed that the engines on the missing plane had continued to run for nearly six more hours after it left Malaysian airspace.

Finding the plane and figuring out what happened to it now is a far more daunting task than if the plane had been intercepted. If the aircraft ended up in the southern Indian Ocean, as some aviation experts now suggest, floating debris could have subsequently drifted hundreds of miles, making it extremely hard to figure out where the cockpit voice and data recorders sank.

And because the recorders keep only the last two hours of cockpit conversation, even the aircraft’s recorders may hold few secrets.

With so much uncertainty about the flight, it is not possible to know whether any actions by the Malaysian government or military could have altered its fate.

Responding to criticism, particularly from China, whose citizens made up two-thirds of the passengers, Najib took pains Saturday to say that Malaysia had not concealed information, including military data.

“We have shared information in real time with authorities who have the necessary experience to interpret the data,” he said, reading aloud a statement in English at a news conference.

“We have been working nonstop to assist the investigation, and we have put our national security second to the search for the missing plane.”

Malaysia Airlines issued a similarly defensive statement.

“Given the nature of the situation and its extreme sensitivity, it was critical that the raw satellite signals were verified and analyzed by the relevant authorities so that their significance could be properly understood,” the airline said. “This naturally took some time.”

Even before the plane took off, Malaysian immigration officials had allowed onto the plane at least two people using passports that had been logged into a global database as stolen, although there is no evidence that either person carrying a stolen passport was involved in diverting the plane.



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