Kuala Lumpur, March 9: The initial hours after the disappearance of flight MH370 were characterized by confusion and chaos, as air traffic controllers struggled to comprehend the situation and radar operators failed to take notice, according to data contained in an interim report.
The report — released one year after the disappearance of the Boeing 777 and its 239 passengers and crew — provides a detailed picture of delays and protocol violations before the launch of the search and rescue.
An astonishing five hours and 13 minutes passed between the last communication from the flight crew and Kuala Lumpur’s first distress signal concerning the missing plane. And it was another five hours before the first search flights took off to try to find it.
CNN’s aviation correspondent Richard Quest said he believes the delayed response was the most disturbing thing revealed by the interim report — “the lack of somebody pushing the big red button that says crisis and panic.”
A year later after the plane’s disappearance, not a single trace of Flight MH370 has been found despite extensive search efforts. Investigators believe the wreckage lies somewhere on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, based on the analysis of satellite communications data.
Confusion in Air Traffic Control
The first sign that something was wrong with flight MH370 came after plane failed to check in with Vietnamese Air Traffic Controllers after leaving Malaysian airspace. According to protocol, Ho Chi Minh ATC should have informed their Kuala Lumpur counterparts (KL ATCC) about this within five minutes.
Instead they waited 20.
When Ho Chi Minh finally did inform Kuala Lumpur, the confusion was evident, as seen in transcripts of the conversation released Sunday. KL ATCC asked three times at what point Ho Chi Minh lost contact, then went on to express concern at the delay, asking “Why you didn’t tell me first? Within five minutes you should be (sic) called me.”
The confusion only got worse after Malaysia Airlines mistakenly told Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Controllers they could see the flight somewhere over Cambodia. It took an hour and a half to clear this up, after Malaysia Airlines admitted to controllers they were only looking at the projected flight track.
Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said the misinformation was a momentary lapse by a company employee. “Our information was only to be as a guide. We are not an ATC per se. We don’t have radar,” he told CNN.
The watch supervisor then waited another two hours to activate the rescue coordination center. Still another hour went by before before Kuala Lumpur issued the distress signal. No explanation for the delay is given in the interim report, which is composed of factual data and provides no conclusions or recommendations.
After the air traffic controllers lost contact with MH370, the plane continued to fly within the range of multiple radar systems belonging to four different countries. Yet little seems to have been done with the data in the immediate hours after the plane disappeared.
The interim report says that “for unknown reasons” Indonesia’s Medan Radar did not see the flight. And Thailand “did not pay much attention,” since MH370’s flight path did not fall within its borders.
Malaysian military radar tracked the flight for an additional hour, including its turn back across the Malay Peninsula. Despite this information, search and rescue teams did not begin expanding the search area for a full day.
Though the interim report makes no mention of it, a failure by the Malaysian military to alert others to the relevant radar data may be blame. A briefing document prepared by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said military authorities failed to share the final radar fix of MH370 with their civilian counterparts for 20 hours. CNN approached Malaysia’s Ministry of Defence for comment but is yet to receive a response
Another working document notes that MH370’s turn back might have been discovered much earlier, if the military and non-military agencies had coordinated better.
“In essence, a week or more was lost in the initial search because of poor civil/military cooperation,” reads the ICAO working document.
The interim report released by Malaysian investigators on Sunday provides no information about when the military radar data was shared with other authorities.
Does it matter?
It’s impossible to know if a speedier response from air traffic controllers, or more immediate access to radar data, would have changed the course of events for MH370. But it would have provided authorities with more time, either to track the flight or to search the ocean before the batteries died in the emergency locator beacons.
Looking back at the series of miscommunication between air traffic controllers and the radar lapses also provides valuable lessons that could help future search and rescue operations.
Though the MH370 investigation team did not draw lessons in the current report, it plans to provide safety recommendations in the months ahead.