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[M. Veera Pandiyan] Lessons from the hunt for ill-fated MH370

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Published : 2014-03-27 20:22
Updated : 2014-03-27 20:22

The tragic flight has exposed Malaysia’s shortcomings in many areas, but we have no other choice than to learn from the experience.

It is heart rending to watch the scenes of grieving relatives, but we can only imagine the depth of their sorrow after 17 agonizing days of holding out hope.

As Malaysia Airlines said in its statement to the families of the 239 passengers and crew on board Flight MH370, there are no words that can ease their pain.

Two-thirds of the passengers on board the Beijing-bound flight were Chinese nationals.

No thanks to the endless number of theories and rumors about the missing plane, many had been holding on to the belief that their loved ones might be alive somewhere, somehow.

However remote it seemed, the probability that the plane might have landed in an isolated place kept their faint hopes aglow.

Understandably, tempers flared as the anxiety grew over each passing day. Some of the relatives accused MAS and Malaysia of lying and even threatened to go on hunger strike as the multinational search dragged on.

But in the back of their minds, Monday night’s announcement that the Boeing 777-200ER had plunged into the southern Indian Ocean with all lives lost was what they must have been dreading to hear all along.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said “a new analysis never before used in an investigation of this sort” by British satellite firm Inmarsat and the United Kingdom’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch had showed that MH370’s last position was in the ocean, west of Perth, Australia.

The plane had apparently flown along the southern corridor where investigators had tracked it based on the “pings” it sent, hours after it strangely went off the radar on March 8.

But until the wreckage is found, we can expect doubts and the seething anger to remain. The grim statement declaring where it crashed won’t be enough to bring any form of closure to the families.

A group representing family members of Chinese passengers has already voiced its “strongest protest and condemnation” for the announcement made without “any direct proof.”

As for the search, it has been stymied by gale force winds, heavy rain and high waves making any air and sea lookouts perilous to crew members.

In addition to battling nasty weather, it’s also a race against time to find the plane’s “pingers” or underwater locator beacons.

These are attached to the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, the so-called black boxes, which are actually bright orange.

The aluminium cylinders emit a sound inaudible to human ears at the rate of one beat per second and have a battery life of about 30 days.

The United States’ Navy has despatched a towed pinger locator to the location where satellites have picked up images of partially submerged objects and debris.

The stingray-looking device ― a meter-long cylindrical microphone attached to a yellow floater with a shark-like fin at the top ― is towed up to 6,000m behind a vessel at slow speeds to detect pings from the recorders.

An Australian navy support vessel in the area, the Ocean Shield, also has acoustic detection equipment to locate pings.

The past two weeks have been a harrowing time for Malaysia with the country coming under the intense glare of global spotlights.

The authorities have been slammed for not acting swiftly on military radar information which showed that MH370 veered off course and turned to the left after disappearing from the commercial aviation radar with its communications systems switched off.

The delay in calling off search operations in the South China Sea also came under much censure.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said in a scathing editorial that massive efforts had been squandered and numerous rumours spawned by the absence or lack of timely authoritative information.

While the Malaysian government has tried its best to provide information as quickly as possible, it cannot be denied that conflicting statements and unclear explanations have contributed to what is being seen as a crisis management debacle.

To be fair, not many countries have faced what has been dubbed an “unprecedented aviation mystery.”

Corroborating all satellite and radar data coming through is no easy task, in addition to coordinating a multinational search effort across huge areas.

Much has been made about the plane flying through military radar and that the RMAF was caught napping.

We now know that primary radar centres in Malaysia and Thailand did indeed spot the plane heading in the wrong direction.

But as Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy put it, it was not surprising operators are trained to detect fast-moving fighter aircraft and not civilian planes, which fill the skies at all hours.

“Like the Sept. 11 attacks, the MH370 mystery is so outside the box that it defies typical surveillance conventions,” he told Global Post.

Ian Storey, a security expert at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies who was also quoted by the paper concurred, saying no one knew the aircraft was headed towards the towers. “And that was in the most technologically powerful country on earth.”

In the case of Thailand, the confirmation of military radar data came only after 10 days, while Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro claimed that the radar off Aceh did not detect any aircraft.

India, too, officially denied that the plane had flown past its radar in the Andaman and Nicobar islands but two officials told the Asian Wall Street Journal that it was standard procedure to switch off the systems when no threat was perceived.

There are lessons for Malaysia to be learnt from this tragedy, which has exposed our shortcomings in many areas.

But flight MH370 has also brought about the best of Malaysians in caring and showing support to the families of those who were on board, in spite of efforts by the usual suspects to glean political mileage from it.

For now, the authorities need to focus on searching for the wreckage and finding the answers to what happened, who was responsible and why.

By M. Veera Pandiyan 

M. Veera Pandiyan is the associate editor of The Star. ― Ed.

(The Star/Asia News Network)

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