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MH370: Mystery Of The Millennium

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KUALA LUMPUR – In less than two months from now, it will be one year since the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) plane, Flight MH370, inexplicably disappeared, and the tragic incident continues to be the biggest mystery in world aviation history.

There has been no clue as to the plane’s exact location, although believed to be in the southern Indian Ocean, and questions regarding its mysterious disappearance continue to be raised among various circles.

Questions pervade the minds of people all over the world: What actually happened? Where is the aircraft now? What’s the fate of its passengers and crew? Is the search location correct? Are the search operation assets not sophisticated enough to enable the plane to be detected? Until when will the search operation go on?

There are also those who ask: What is the next course of action if the plane is declared lost? Can “solat ghaib” (prayers for missing dead or persons assumed dead) be performed without the evidence found? What about compensation for the next of kin of the MH370 passengers and crew? Which party will bear the overall cost of the search operation?

These issues were also raised by Bernama with aviation experts, a former aircraft captain, academicians and religious experts in seeking answers to the questions raised.

The Boeing 777 aircraft which was carrying 12 crew members and 227 passengers, including two infants, disappeared from radar screens while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, about an hour after departing from the KL International Airport at 12.41am on March 8, 2014. It was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6.30am the same day.

On the search operation and location, aviation expert Captain Abdul Rahmat Omar Tun Mohd Haniff said the Boeing 777 aircraft was about 4,500 square metres in size while the search area was around 59,600 sq km.

“This means the size of the aircraft is only 0.078 per cent of the search area. Comparatively, the AirAsia Indonesia plane (QZ8501) fell to a depth of 30 metres (in the Java Sea), which is only 0.5 per cent of the depth of the search area (southern Indian Ocean) for MH370.

“Even that, it took two weeks to find part of the AirAsia aircraft tail, with many other evidence such as pieces of the aircraft wreckage and floating bodies detected,” he said.

The Airbus plane with 162 people including seven crew members on board went missing from radar screens last Dec 28 while en route to Singapore from Surabaya. It crashed in the waters of Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan in Indonesia.

Abdul Rahmat, a former Royal Malaysian Air Force pilot, said the search for MH370 was no easy task and suggested that more vessels and equipment be deployed to boost the search operation for the 404th Boeing-built aircraft.

Referring to a report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which is spearheading the search operation, he said the area of focus was further south, a remote area known as the seventh arc in the southern Indian Ocean.

The location was determined after perusing the satellite communication data and based on information from a 17-minute phone conversation from land to air which went unanswered after the last response received through the radar.

Assoc Prof Captain Dr Mohd Harridon Mohamed Suffian concurred with Abdul Rahmat, opining that the search location was accurate as it was based on thorough analysis of the ping from the aircraft, where each ping had its own “signature” and the ping signature showed it originated from MH370.

“The determination of the location in the southern Indian Ocean as indicated by Inmarsat was strengthened by radar finding that MH370 had earlier moved to the Andaman Sea. And the search operation was conducted using adequate and sophisticated assets.

“It was only that the search location was pinpointed about a week after the aircraft was reported missing. Within that one week, pieces of the wreckage might have been carried away by the sea waves to other locations, depending on the wind direction. This made the search for the debris and wreckage difficult,” he said.

Mohd Harridon, who is head of Aircraft Research and Innovation at UniKL, said it should be noted that most of the debris were metallic and so could easily submerge, hence the search should focus on the seabed and this would take a rather long time.

According to him, the seabed of the southern Indian Ocean has valleys and hills while this topography has not been mapped, further hampering the search operation.

He suggested the use of mathematical methodology to make the search more effective.

“The method I am suggesting is one of probability called bayesian inference which considers several probabilities, as well as the wind direction, waves, weight of the aircraft based on the fuel it carried and other factors.

“By using this method, all information and data would be applied and this might reduce the radius of the search area,” he said.

Asked on when the government and search team could declare the aircraft as lost, he said based on international law, a thorough and comprehensive investigation must first be conducted.

“If an aircraft is declared lost, the next course of action, based on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulations Annex 3, is to make an official investigation involving the relevant parties.

“They include the owner of the aircraft, country where the aircraft was registered, registration body, DCA of the country where the aircraft was registered, countries of origin of the aircraft passengers, and the aircraft manufacturer.

“From the findings of the investigation, a comprehensive report is to be prepared according to the standard and format spelt out in Annex 13.

On compensation, Mohd Harridon said, normally the airline company owning the aircraft would provide compensation for the victims’ next of kin.

He also noted that if the passenger had air insurance coverage, the insurance companies concerned would also pay out compensation.

As for the cost of the search operation, he said it would be based on the mutual agreement, whereby Malaysia, Australia and China had agreed to contribute assets and personnel for the search operation.

The search at the seabed has reportedly covered about 30 per cent of the 60,000-sq km search area now, while about 208,000 sq km has been mapped.

If there are no more obstacles and delays, the overall search operation is expected to be completed by May this year.

Currently, four vessels, namely GO Phoenix, Fugro Discovery, Fugro Equator and the latest, Fugro Supporter, equipped with an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), are involved in the mission of searching for the ill-fated MAS aircraft.

“That AUV will be used to scan the portions of the search area that cannot be searched effectively by the equipment on the other search vessels,” said ATSB recently.

The Fugro Equator, Discovery and Supporter were offered by the Dutch multinational company, Fugro, and their involvement in the search operation is jointly funded by Australia and Malaysia, while GO Phoenix received a contract from the Malaysian government.

Meanwhile, Malaysia Islamic Development Department’s (Jakim) principal assistant director (Islamic Development), Mohd Ajib Ismail said “solat ghaib” could be performed if the family members received no remains of the victims.

“However, they need to wait for the declaration first. Then they can do the ‘solat ghaib’ among themselves, while the prayers can also be performed on a big scale throughout the country. It’s up to what people want,” he said.

Mohd Ajib also advised the victims’ family members to be calm and accept what happened to MH370 and its passengers and crew as fated. – Bernama

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