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Theories And Disputes Eddy Around Missing Malaysian Airliner


A dramatically different version of events is emerging about the path of Malaysia Airline's Flight 370. Malaysian authorities now say the jetliner made a sharp change in course, heading from northeast to west, and they say the last sign of the plane came an hour later than previously stated. The Boeing 777 disappeared early Saturday morning local time en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

Here to sort through some possible scenarios is New York Times reporter Matthew Wald, who has covered many plane crashes over the years. Matt, thanks for coming in.

MATTHEW WALD: Thank you.

BLOCK: And why don't you start by explaining what we thought we knew before and how that's different from what we're now hearing.

WALD: Well, the airplane had a flight plan and it disappeared. The first place you look is along the planned route of flight, and then you think, well, the airplane could have deviated to left or right. I could have come down in the water and there were currents. It could have been carried away. It now appears that it went through this wild deviation.

The Malaysian military says it was tracked on radar turning west. It had fuel to fly for many hours. Maybe it could have gone as far as India. There's a huge area where it could've gone.

BLOCK: But in the meantime, there's been a massive international search operation going on in exactly the wrong place.

WALD: In the wrong place, yes.

BLOCK: And what questions does that raise for you, this new version of events?

WALD: The airplane has a device on it that helps people on the ground keep track of it. It has something called a transponder. The transponder gets triggered by a signal from the ground and it replies: Here's my identity and here's my altitude. That's system failed. It wasn't running. Maybe it was turned off. Maybe something went wrong.

There was no audio communication. After a certain point there was one report that another airplane was asked by air traffic controllers to talk to this airplane, got some garbled response and gave up. That on its own is not unusual, but then this airplane is gone without a trace.

BLOCK: There would be other data coming in from this plane, right, through something called the ACARS system. It's a communication system, would give data about location and altitude and speed back to ground?

WALD: ACARS is a one-way system that the mechanical parts of the airplane use to transmit back not to air traffic control but to the maintenance base. Mostly it's engine performance data. And whether or not they find the plane, I presume they will eventually, the ACARS data is available on the ground. How long that ran is an open question. American investigators are already on the ground in Kuala Lumpur.

They don't know where else to go. I'd presume at this point they're looking for the ACARS data.

BLOCK: And is that useful? I mean will that tell them a lot?

WALD: It could. It could tell them, for example, how long it functioned. It could tell them the engines were running normally. That would be a data point you'd like to have. It could tell them the status of various cockpit functions.

BLOCK: There is a story through Australia television, the show "A Current Affair," that Malaysia Airlines is apparently looking into, in which two women say that they were invited into the cockpit two years ago by the co-pilot on this flight, that they were posing for photos and smoking with the pilots. How does that strike you?

WALD: Entirely plausible. Pilots say that the cruise portion of these flights in these highly automated cockpits is pretty boring and the guys sitting in the front will look back in the cabin and invite somebody, usually some attractive-looking female, to come up and, you know, be awed by all the buttons and switches in the cockpit. Every now and then you hear about some airline disciplining its pilots for doing that.

U.S. carriers have much stricter rules on who is allowed access to the cockpit than other carriers in international flight. Other carriers are not so worried, frankly, about al-Qaida.

BLOCK: So even with all the emphasis post-9/11 on cockpit security, you're saying this still happens.

WALD: I don't know its frequency. Anecdotally, you can say there's some of that out there, yes.

BLOCK: Matt, does this investigation and what's known about his plane crash seem at all familiar to you, I mean that there would be this many days after the crash, about four days now, no sign of an aircraft, a lot of confusing information coming out?

WALD: Crashes at sea are different, but I can't think of another crash of a plane where we've gone this far without having the wreckage.

BLOCK: New York Times reporter Matthew Wald. Matthew, thanks for coming in.

WALD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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