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    Mar 17, 2014

    No one batted an eyelid as blip flew over Malaysia


    A BRITISH Royal Air Force base in the colonial era, the Malaysian air force base at Butterworth sits on the mainland across from the island of Penang in the northern reaches of the Strait of Malacca.

    There, in the wee hours of March 8, the four-person crew watching for intrusions into the country's airspace either did not notice or failed to report a blip on their defensive radar and air traffic radar that was moving steadily across the country, from east to west, heading right towards them, said a person with detailed knowledge of the investigation into Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

    Neither that team nor the crews at two other radar installations in Kota Baru - closer to where the airliner last had contact with the ground - designated the blip as an unknown intruder warranting attention, the source said.

    The aircraft proceeded to fly across the country and out to sea without anyone on watch telling a superior and alerting the national defence command near Kuala Lumpur, even though the radar contact's flight path did not correspond to any filed flight plan.

    The radar blip that was Flight 370 did a wide U-turn over the Gulf of Thailand, and then began moving inexorably past at least three military radar arrays as it traversed northern Malaysia.

    But inside the Malaysian air force control room, a four-person air defence radar crew did nothing about the unauthorised flight, even as American-made F-18 and F-5 fighter jets stood at a high level of readiness for emergencies exactly like the one unfolding in the early morning of March 8.

    "The fact that it flew straight over Malaysia, without the Malaysian military identifying it, is just plain weird - not just weird, but also very damning and tragic," said Mr David Learmount, operations and safety editor for Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector.

    Senior Malaysian military officers became aware within hours, once word spread that a civilian airliner had vanished.

    General Rodzali Daud, the commander of Malaysia's air force, went to the Butterworth air force base the day that the plane disappeared and was told of the radar blip, the source said.

    Still, the Malaysian government organised and oversaw an expensive and complex international search effort in the Gulf of Thailand that lasted a full week.

    With so much uncertainty about the flight, it is not yet possible to know whether any actions by the Malaysian government or military could have altered its fate.

    But if the aircraft ended up in the southern Indian Ocean, as some aviation experts now suggest, then floating debris could have subsequently drifted hundreds of kilometres, making it extremely hard to figure out where the cockpit voice and data recorders sank.

    And because the recorders keep only the last two hours of cockpit conversation, even the aircraft's recorders may hold few secrets.