On the fateful night that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, officials apparently didn’t notice for 17 minutes that it had gone off radar — and didn’t activate an official rescue operation for four hours.
Those are two of the details outlined in a preliminary report by Malaysia’s Transportation Ministry released to the public Thursday. The report had been sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N. body for global aviation.
What’s remarkable about the report is what’s missing from it.
When did the plane disappear?
At 1:21 a.m. on March 8, the plane — carrying 239 people to Beijing — disappeared from radar in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
By then, the plane’s crew should have contacted air traffic control in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, but apparently it didn’t.
And it wasn’t until 17 minutes later that Ho Chi Minh asked Malaysian air traffic control where the plane was.
“We are left to assume (that) for those 17 minutes, Kuala Lumpur either didn’t notice or didn’t act,” CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest said.
Why was there a four-hour gap in response?
Then came a four-hour gap — from the time when officials noticed the plane was missing to when the official rescue operation was launched.
The report gives an account of the conversation air traffic controllers in Vietnam and Malaysia had at that time. Ho Chi Minh City let Kuala Lumpur know at 1:38 a.m. that it was not able to establish verbal contact with Flight 370.
Kuala Lumpur also contacted Singapore, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Those four hours may have been crucial.
On Tuesday, a Malaysia Airlines official said the plane probably ran out of fuel about 7½ hours into the flight. That means it might have been flying during that four-hour gap, and possibly for another 2½ hours after the search started.
Where was the military?
The Malaysian Prime Minister has said the military tracked the plane as it headed back across Malaysia.
According to the report, a playback of a recording from military primary radar revealed that an aircraft that may have been MH370 had made a westerly turn, crossing Peninsular Malaysia. The search area was then extended to the Strait of Malacca.
But it’s unclear when that happened. The report makes no mention of the military’s role the night of the disappearance.
Where are the details?
Preliminary reports are by their nature brief and to the point. It is up to the country to choose whether to release additional details, such as a cargo manifest, seating plan and air traffic control transcripts.
“This report and any other documents released should be an audit of what happened and factually who did what,” Quest said.
Compared to the preliminary reports of other recent major flight investigations, the one released by Malaysia is scant.
The equivalent preliminary report on Air France 447 was 128 pages long. That report by, produced by France’s aviation safety agency just one month after the plane went missing in 2009, offered specific details on communication between various air traffic control centers.
Flight 447 was found more than a year later in the Atlantic Ocean; all 228 people on board had died.
And a preliminary report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau into the Qantas engine explosion in 2010 ran more than 40 pages, including diagrams and charts.
“I can certainly understand that the authorities had more pressing matters in finding the plane than writing a long report, when there will be plenty of other chances to do so,” Quest said, “but this report is the barest possible they could get away with.”
Debate over transparency
The report released Thursday was the same one Malaysia submitted to the International Civil Aviation Organization but had not been made public. Malaysian officials came under heavy criticism last week for submitting the report to the U.N. body but not making it available to relatives of passengers.
While authorities are not required to make a preliminary report public, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak acquiesced.
Reporters could not ask questions raised by the report since the document was released by e-mail and not at a news conference.
One safety recommendation
The report makes one safety recommendation: the need for real-time tracking.
Authorities noted that while commercial planes spend considerable time operating over remote areas, there is no requirement for real-time tracking of such aircraft.
“There have now been two occasions during the last five years when large commercial air transport aircraft have gone missing and their last position was not accurately known,” the Malaysian report states. “This uncertainty resulted in significant difficulty in locating the aircraft in a timely manner.”
CNN reported on this detail from the report last week.
The officials asked the International Civil Aviation Organization to examine the benefits of introducing a standard for real-time tracking of commercial planes.
It’s the same recommendation that was made after the Air France 447 disaster in 2009. But nothing seems to have happened after that report.