Missing jet still a mystery; air force says it may have turned back

Update at 1:15 a.m. from Associated Press: Malaysia's air force chief says that military radar indicated the missing Boeing 777 jet may have turned back, but declined to give further details on how far the plane may have veered off course, according to the Associated Press.

Rodzali Daud told a press conference Sunday that "there is a possible indication that the aircraft made a turnback," adding that authorities were "trying to make sense of that.

Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said the pilot is supposed to inform the airline and traffic control authorities if he does return, but that officials had received no such distress call.

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HONG KONG — Investigators trying to find out what happened to a Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared somewhere over the Gulf of Thailand on Saturday morning were examining the usual causes of plane crashes: mechanical failure, pilot error, bad weather. But the discovery that two of the passengers were carrying stolen passports also raised the unsettling possibility of foul play.

By early this morning, there was little to go on: no wreckage of the jet, a Boeing 777-200 with 239 people aboard, and other than a 12-mile oil slick on the surface of the gulf, no clue that a crash had even taken place.

The airline said the plane had recently passed inspection, and Malaysia's deputy minister of transport, Aziz bin Kaprawi, said the authorities had not received any distress signals from the aircraft. The plane was flying at 35,000 feet with no reports of threatening weather when it disappeared about an hour and a half after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing, Malaysia's aviation officials said.

After officials in Rome and Vienna confirmed that the names of an Italian and an Austrian on the manifest of the missing flight matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand, officials emphasized that the investigation was in its earliest stages and that they were considering all possibilities.

"We are not ruling out anything," the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, told reporters at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Saturday night.

Using a system that looks for flashes around the world, the Pentagon reviewed preliminary surveillance data from the area where the plane disappeared and saw no evidence of an explosion, said an American government official who spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity because the subject matter is classified. A team of aviation experts led by the National Transportation Safety Board was expected to leave for the area on Saturday night.

If all aboard were killed, it would be the deadliest commercial airline crash since Nov. 12, 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus crashed just after takeoff from Kennedy Airport in New York en route to the Dominican Republic.

The passengers included three Americans. One was Philip Wood, 50, an IBM employee who was living in Kuala Lumpur. His family in Texas had little information about the flight beyond what had been reported in the media.

The two other Americans listed on the flight manifest were Nicole Meng, 4, and Yan Zhang, 2. The State Department confirmed that three U.S. citizens were on board.

Operating as Flight MH370, the plane left Kuala Lumpur just after midnight on Saturday, headed for Beijing. Air traffic control in Subang, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, lost contact with the plane around 1:30 a.m., Malaysia's civil aviation department said. China Central Television said that according to Chinese air traffic control officials, the plane never entered Chinese airspace.

A European counterterrorism official said the Italian man whose passport was stolen, Luigi Maraldi, 37, called his parents from Thailand, where he is vacationing, after discovering that someone by the same name was listed on the passenger manifest. The official, who spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity, said Maraldi reported the theft last August to the Italian police. The official said the passport of the Austrian man, Christian Kozel, 30, who is currently in Austria, was stolen about two years ago.

Malaysia, the United States and Vietnam dispatched ships and aircraft to the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on Saturday to join an intensive search, and the state-run Xinhua news agency said China was sending a Coast Guard vessel and two naval ships.

Malaysia Airlines said the plane had 227 passengers aboard, including two toddlers, and an all-Malaysian crew of 12. According to the manifest, the passengers included 154 citizens from China or Taiwan, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French, the three Americans, as well as two citizens each from Canada, New Zealand and Ukraine and one each from Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia — although the true nationalities of the passengers carrying the Austrian and Italian passports are still unknown.

Missing jet still a mystery; air force says it may have turned back 03/08/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 9, 2014 1:24am]

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