The preliminary internal enquiries come as tensions mount between
civilian and military authorities over who bears most responsibility
for the initial confusion and any mistakes that led to a weeklong
search in the wrong ocean.
"What happened at that time is being investigated and I can't say
any more than that because it involves the military and the
government," a senior government official told Reuters.
In an interview with Reuters last weekend, Malaysia Airlines Chief
Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said internal enquiries were under
way, although he declined to give details.
A government spokesman did not respond to Reuters questions over
whether an investigation had been launched. The senior government
source said it was aimed at getting a detailed picture of the
initial response. It was unclear which government department was in
charge or whether a formal probe had been opened.
Malaysia's opposition coalition has demanded a parliamentary inquiry
into what happened on the ground in those first few hours.
Government officials have said any formal inquiry should not begin
until the flight's black box recorders are found.
The Boeing 777 was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew when it
disappeared on March 8. Malaysia says it believes the plane crashed
into the southern Indian Ocean after being deliberately diverted
from its Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route.
A search effort is taking place well out to sea off the Australian
city of Perth to try to locate any wreckage as well as the recorders
which may provide answers to what happened onboard.
MECHANICAL PROBLEM ASSUMED
Interviews with the senior government source and four other civilian
and military officials show that air traffic controllers and
military officials assumed the plane had turned back to an airport
in Malaysia because of mechanical trouble when it disappeared off
civilian radar screens at 1:21 a.m. local time.
That assumption took hold despite no distress call or other
communication coming from the cockpit, which could have been a clue
that the plane had been hijacked or deliberately diverted.
The five sources together gave Reuters the most detailed account yet
of events in the hour after the plane vanished. All declined to be
identified due to the sensitivity of the issue and because they were
not authorized to speak to the media.
"The initial assumption was that the aircraft could have diverted
due to mechanical issues or, in the worst case scenario, crashed,"
said a senior Malaysian civilian source. "That is what we were
Officials at Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation, which oversees
air traffic controllers, the Defence Ministry and the air force
directed requests for comment to the prime minister's office, which
did not respond.
One senior military official said air traffic control had informed
the military at around 2:00 a.m. that a plane was missing. The
standard operating procedure was to do so within 15 minutes, he
said. Another military source said the notification was slow in
coming, but did not give a time.
Civil aviation officials told Reuters their response was in line
with guidelines, but they did not give a specific time for when the
military was informed.
Once alerted, military radar picked up an unidentified plane heading
west across peninsular Malaysia, the senior military official said.
The air force has said a plane that could have been MH370 was last
plotted on military radar at 2:15 a.m., 320 km (200 miles) northwest
of the west coast state of Penang.
PLANE TRACKED IN REAL TIME?
Top military officials have publicly said Malaysia's U.S. and
Russian-made fighter jets stationed at air force bases in Penang and
the east coast state of Kuantan were not scrambled to intercept the
plane because it was not viewed as "hostile".
"When we were alerted, we got our boys to check the military radar.
We noticed that there was an unmarked plane flying back but (we)
could not confirm (its identity)," said the senior military source.
"Based on the information we had from ATC (Air Traffic Control) and
DCA (Department of Civil Aviation), we did not send up any jets
because it was possibly mechanical problems and the plane might have
been going back to Penang."
The military has not publicly acknowledged it tracked the plane in
real time as it crossed back over the peninsula.
While fighter jets would not have had enough fuel to track a Boeing
777 for long and darkness would have complicated the operation, they
could have spotted MH370 flying across peninsular Malaysia and
possibly beyond, aviation experts said.
That could have enabled Malaysia to get a better fix on where it was
headed and thus possibly ruled out the need to search off its east
coast in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, around where
MH370 was last seen on civilian radar.
Fighter pilots should be able to scramble within minutes, aviation
experts said, although the time can vary widely from country to
country. In Europe and North America, radar experts said controllers
were trained to coordinate across civil and military lines and
[to top of second column]
They said military jets would have been scrambled, as they were from
a Greek air force base in 2005 when a Helios Airways jet with 121
people on board lost contact over the Aegean Sea after suffering a
decompression that knocked out the pilots. Two F-16 jets could see
the captain's seat empty and the first officer slumped over the
controls. The plane crashed in Greece after running out of fuel.
"This raises questions of coordination between military and civil
controllers," former pilot Hugh Dibley, a fellow of the Royal
Aeronautical Society in London, said of Malaysia's response.
Another contentious issue has been whether the military was slow in
passing on its radar data that showed an unidentified plane had
re-crossed the Malay peninsula.
Two civilian aviation officials said military bureaucracy delayed
the sharing of this information, although they gave no precise
timeframe for when it was handed over.
"The armed forces knew much earlier that the aircraft could have
turned back. That is why the search was expanded to include the
Strait of Malacca within a day or two," said a second senior
civilian source, who was familiar with the initial search, referring
to the narrow stretch of water between Indonesia and Malaysia, on
the western side of the peninsula.
"But the military did not confirm this until much later due to
resistance from senior officers, and the government needed to step
in. We wasted our time in the South China Sea."
Government sources have said Prime Minister Najib Razak had to force
the military to turn over its raw radar data to investigators during
the first week after the flight's disappearance.
Military officials have said they did not want to risk causing
confusion by sharing the data before it had been verified, adding
this was why Air Force chief Rodzali Daud went to the air base in
Penang on March 9, where the plane's final radar plot was recorded.
On the same day, Rodzali said the search was being expanded to the
west coast, although Reuters has not been able to determine if that
meant the data was being shared with other Malaysian officials.
On March 12, four days after Flight MH370 disappeared, Rodzali told
reporters there was still no confirmation the unidentified plane had
been Flight MH370, but added Malaysia was sharing the radar data
with international civilian and military authorities, including
those from the United States.
Authorities called off the search in the South China Sea on March 15
after Razak said satellite data showed the plane could have taken a
course anywhere from central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean.
FEARS OF LOSING JOBS
A sixth source, a senior official in the civil aviation sector, said
the plane's disappearance had exposed bureaucratic dysfunction in
Malaysia, which has rarely been subject to such international
demands for transparency. "There was never the need for these silos
to speak to one another. It's not because of ill intent, it's just
the way the system was set up," the official said.
The accounts given to Reuters reveal growing tensions between
civilian officials, the military and Malaysia Airlines over whether
more could have been done in those initial hours.
One of the Reuters sources said military officials in particular
were concerned they could lose their jobs.
Tensions have also emerged between the government and
state-controlled Malaysia Airlines.
Malaysia's defence minister and acting transport minister,
Hishammuddin Hussein, said in an interview with China's CCTV that
the airline would have to "answer" for its mistakes in dealing with
the relatives of the some 150 Chinese passengers on board.
In his interview with Reuters, Malaysia Airlines chief Ahmad Jauhari
played down talk of tension, saying there were "slight differences
(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris;
writing by Stuart Grudgings; editing by Alex Richardson and Dean Yates)
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