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Last updated: March 13, 2014 7:57 am
Malaysian authorities have dispatched surveillance aircraft to investigate the latest apparent sighting of debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 after Chinese satellite images appeared to show three large items floating in the South China Sea.
The aeroplane, which disappeared on Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and 12 crew on board, has become the subject of a huge, and so far fruitless, search effort.
The latest mission began when it was revealed that a Chinese satellite had spotted three large pieces of debris floating northeast of the Malay peninsular. China’s Xinhua official news agency on Thursday reported the debris, which was far larger than others previously reported.
But China’s civil aviation chief subsequently cautioned that there was no proof that the floating objects – which come from images taken on Sunday morning – were connected to the missing flight MH370.
“Chinese satellites have found smoke and floating objects . . . At present we cannot confirm this is related to the missing aircraft,” Li Jiaxiang told reporters on the sidelines of China’s annual meeting of parliament.
The co-ordinates for the sighting – which was made on Sunday – were along the aircraft’s planned flight path, south of Vietnam’s Ca Mau peninsula. It is the latest in a string of sightings which have been chased since the aeroplane disappeared – all so far have failed to provide any information on its whereabouts.
Criticism has been mounting daily of Malaysian authorities that communications have been slow, information contradictory and co-ordination patchy. Aviation experts, frustrated relatives of those aboard and even China itself, home country of the majority of passengers, have been increasingly vocal in making their concerns known.
Vietnam said on Wednesday that it was reducing its involvement in the search and rescue for flight MH370 because of “insufficient information” from the Malaysian side. It had been one of the first countries to send ships to the area being combed for signs of wreckage – an operation that now involves 42 vessels and 39 aircraft from 12 countries.
On Wednesday the Chinese foreign ministry said: “There’s too much information and confusion right now. It is very hard for us to decide whether a given piece of information is accurate.” It added: “We will not give it up as long as there’s still a shred of hope.’’
David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flightglobal magazine, said: “It’s bad enough for a wide-body jet to go missing . . . but then for the responsible country’s government and aviation agencies to handle the associated information with total incompetence is unforgivable.”
Malaysian officials belatedly sought to combat the criticism with a show of top military brass on Wednesday, armed with the latest radar tracking information. Rodzali Daud, air force chief, told a press conference that the last “plot” of a suspected aircraft logged on the military’s “primary radar” systems came at 2.15am last Saturday, putting the aircraft 200 miles northwest of Penang, a port city on the west of Peninsular Malaysia.
That was 45 minutes after flight MH370 disappeared from the civil aviation’s “secondary radar”.
Mr Rodzali had sparked confusion earlier when he denied telling a Malaysian newspaper that an aircraft had been detected turning towards the Malacca Strait.
Hishamuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defence and acting transport minister, said authorities were “still not sure” that what appeared on the military radar was flight MH370. “We need to clarify that to make sure that the information that we have been saying in the last few days is consistent,” he said. “It is far from confusion. It is only confusion if you see it as confusion.”
There’s too much information and confusion right now. It is very hard for us to decide whether a given piece of information is accurate
- China’s foreign ministry
Mr Hishamuddin, who trained as a lawyer in the UK before going into politics, said he would appear at daily press briefings as of Thursday in an apparent move to tackle criticism that too many ministry and department heads have been weighing in on the airliner’s disappearance.
“There’s been a sense that there’s no central voice, no leadership in this situation,” says Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director-general of the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore.
Aviation experts have suggested various theories that might explain how the aircraft, which was at normal cruising altitude when Malaysian air traffic control lost touch with it, disappeared so suddenly.
“Even if you had a catastrophic explosion at 10,000 metres, you always find pieces of seats and lining, and life jackets come up. This doesn’t make any logical sense,” said Neil Hansford, chairman of Strategic Aviation Solutions, an aviation consultancy based in Australia.
It has also emerged that the US Federal Aviation Authority, the lead safety regulator for all US-built aircraft, had made operators aware late last year of a potential structural weakness in Boeing 777 aircraft that could lead to the aircraft breaking up in mid-air.
One Malaysian official said he did not know if the aircraft had been inspected for the known fault and would have to check. The country’s civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said the aircraft had recently passed a safety inspection.
The FAA only published the official warning – known as an airworthiness directive (AD) – last week, ordering airlines to begin “repetitive inspections” for cracking and corrosion on the fuselage near the satellite communication antennae from April 9.
In the document, the FAA said: “We are issuing this AD to detect and correct cracking and corrosion in the fuselage skin, which could lead to rapid decompression and loss of structural integrity of the airplane.”
Boeing said it could not comment under international rules governing air accident investigations.
Malaysia Airlines also said it was shocked by and “taking very seriously” reports first made by Australia’s Channel Nine network that the first officer and co-pilot of the flight, Fariq Ab Hamid, had invited two women into the cockpit of an aircraft in 2011.
Interpol has played down the possibility of a terrorist attack after it was established that two Iranian men who boarded the flight with stolen Austrian and Italian passports were likely to be asylum seekers trying to get to Europe.
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