- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2014

With the mystery of the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner growing for a third day, aviation analysts speculated Monday that a catastrophic event such as a bomb blast or mechanical failure brought down the Boeing 777 over the dense jungles of Vietnam.

But they and government officials continued to say that it is too early to draw a conclusion and that an act of terrorism hasn’t been ruled out.

“There isn’t anything that isn’t strange about this accident,” said Jim Tilmon, a retired American Airlines pilot. “There’s so many things that could’ve happened. We need to be careful about jumping to conclusions because one of the things we do know is that early information is often wrong.”

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished from radar screens and radio contact at 35,000 feet Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. No debris has been found off the coast of Thailand, where the water is shallow.

A key element of the mystery is how all of the airliner’s electronic emissions went silent simultaneously.

A variety of electronic transmissions usually help flight controllers and investigators track a plane’s altitude, direction and speed. Transponders, automatic beacons, GPS and computer communications help monitor the state-of-the-art Boeing 777. The plane’s “black box” transmissions are activated by the impact of a downed flight. This time, no problems were reported before everything went black.

“These airplanes are so sophisticated they go through a diagnostic check every time you power them up for flight,” said former United Airlines pilot Ross Aimer, CEO of Aero Consulting Experts. “It’s almost an impossibility that all of the transponders failed at some point without someone knowing about it.”

In addition, two of the airliner’s passengers were traveling on stolen passports, and their tickets were purchased for them by an Iranian middleman.

Benjaporn Krunait, owner of the Grand Horizon travel agency in Pattaya, Thailand, told the Financial Times that an Iranian man called “Mr. Ali” asked her to book the two men to travel to Europe. There is no indication that the Iranian knew the men were traveling on stolen passports and he didn’t specify which flight he wanted, the British newspaper reported.

That the two mystery travelers — one bearing the name of an Italian and the other that of an Austrian — slipped through security screenings before takeoff has raised concern among the international law enforcement community. The men had tickets to Europe via Beijing, allowing them to avoid applying for Chinese visas.

“Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane, it is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol’s databases,” Interpol Secretary-General Ronald K. Noble said Sunday.

Although troubling, fraudulent passports are used with some frequency in developing parts of the world, especially for drug smuggling and illegal immigration, U.S. authorities say.

Investigators are not ruling out pilot error, engine failure or turbulence as other reasons why the plane may have gone down.

A massive international investigation is underway.

“This unprecedented missing aircraft mystery — as you can put it — it is mystifying,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, said Monday at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Earlier leads, such as an oil slick found in the ocean and the door of the missing jetliner being spotted, turned out not to be from the missing aircraft, he said.

The search for the jetliner has been expanded from the plane’s original flight path to include areas in the Andaman Sea on the western side of the Malaysian peninsula. About 40 ships and 34 aircraft from nine countries are sweeping the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea near Vietnam in an attempt to locate any sign of the jet.

The U.S. has committed two destroyers, the USS Pinckney and the USS Kidd, to search and rescue operations, said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren. Helicopters on the destroyers capable of nighttime searches also are being used.

The search and rescue effort remains the main focus, said Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, although family members of the flight’s passengers have been told to prepare for the worst.

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