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India to join plane search

New Delhi, March 12: India is preparing to join the hunt for the Malaysia Airlines plane missing since Saturday but was waiting for instructions from Kuala Lumpur on exactly what help it needs, underscoring the haze of confusion that has marked the search for the aircraft.

The Indian government this afternoon placed its navy and coastguard on standby after indications from Malaysia that the search for the missing plane — confined till now to waters close to the Malay Peninsula — may need to be expanded into the south Andaman Sea.

“We’re coordinating details with Malaysian authorities to determine how many ships they will need and where they might be required,” the Indian foreign ministry’s spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said. “We are ready to help.”

The Boeing 777-200ER carrying 227 passengers — including five Indians — and 12 crew members was on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday, flying at about 35,000 feet when it vanished from radar screens an hour into its journey.

Dozens of ships and aircraft from 10 nations have over the past five days searched the South China Sea — where the aircraft was last seen. But Malaysian authorities today said that a military radar had early Saturday spotted an unidentified aircraft northwest of the Malay peninsula.

While Malaysian officials say they still need to confirm the identity of that aircraft, if it was indeed the missing Flight MH370, it could have reached south of the Nicobar Islands with the fuel it had carried, officials in Kuala Lumpur told Indian officials.

The prolonged uncertainty about the fate of the flight appeared to have stirred expressions of anger among some relatives of passengers. K.S. Narendran, the husband of Chennai-based Chandrika Sharma, one of the passengers on the plane, accused the Indian government of not even communicating with families of passengers.

But Indian officials both in New Delhi and in Kuala Lumpur insisted that the Indian high commissioner in Malaysia, T.S. Tirumurti, had personally spoken with family members of each Indian passenger on the plane, including Narendran.

While the search teams focus on finding debris or bodies from the aircraft, aviation safety experts Wednesday said two instruments — the emergency locator transmitter and the flight data recorder — hold the key to solving what has become the most baffling aviation mystery in recent years.

The ELT and FDR, embedded near the tail section of every civilian aircraft would be expected to transmit electronic beeps if the plane crashes to allow search-and-rescue teams to locate the wreckage.

For aviation safety specialist Keith Mackey, the absence of emergency “pings” from these two instruments on MH370 is as big a mystery as the failure of search teams to find the Malaysia Airlines plane missing for five days.

“Why they can’t find them (the pings) is a mystery,” said Mackey, a Florida-based former Boeing-747 captain with over 17,000 hours of flying experience and who has assisted in investigating aircraft accidents in the US.

The ELT serves as a “find-me-beacon” while the FDR — also called the black box — stores critical information about the aircraft — such as the altitude, direction of movement and status of various onboard flight systems — throughout its flight. Their beeps typically last about 30 days after they are activated by a crash — the window when the wreckage will be easiest to find.

But experts caution that certain situations may damage the ELT itself or make its signals hard to detect.

“The transmitter may have ripped off during the impact,” said Graham Braithwaite, professor of transportation safety studies and aircraft accident investigations at Cranfield University in the UK.

“The industry has been trying to make ELT's more crash-proof than they currently are,” Braithwaite told The Telegraph.

The failure by search teams to detect the pings may also be the result of looking at the wrong place. “The search ships would need to get close enough to the ELT before they can receive the signals,” said Uttam Kumar Bose, a veteran airline executive who has managed operations for multiple private airlines in India.

Aviation experts also say a plane crashing into the sea may not leave easy-to-spot debris on the sea surface.

“If the aircraft went in almost whole, it may not leave too much of tell-tale marks on the ocean surface,” Braithwaite said. “It could be hard to spot such debris because it’s just concentrated in a small zone of the sea.”

An abrupt explosion and disintegration of the plane in mid-air might also make it hard to detect debris. “From an altitude of over 30,000 feet, the debris would have spread across a large area, and that can make it hard to find isolated tiny fragments,” Bose said.

While a bomb would be one possible explanation for an abrupt mid-air disintegration, Mackey said, he could not imagine how technical faults aboard a civilian airliner could have caused a mid-air disintegration.

The experts are not particularly surprised at the absence of emergency radio calls from the pilots of MH370.

“In an emergency, pilots are trained to aviate, navigate, and then communicate in that order,” said Braithwaite. “The pilots’ first priority is to deal with whatever problem they might have sensed on the flight deck.”

The mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane has stirred comparisons with the search for an Air France aircraft that had crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009. While some debris had been found within days after the plane went missing, most of the wreckage was found on the seabed only in May 2011.

“But the underwater terrain in the Atlantic in the region is deep and mountainous — that made it harder to find the aircraft,” said a senior aircraft accident investigation specialist who was not associated with the search for the Air France plane.

Experts expect a steady increase in the time and resources to find MH370. “It would be utterly unacceptable for the aviation sector not to find the aircraft,” said Braithwaite. “The aviation sector is as safe as it is today because we always learn from accidents.”