Asia's long history of carnage in the air
By John McBeth
JAKARTA - The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines' Boeing 777-200 has now become almost as bizarre as the disappearance of the aircraft itself with authorities now saying it may not only have reversed course, but flew 500 kilometers back across the Malaysian peninsula.
In a stunning turn of events, the Malaysian Air Force claimed Flight 370, carrying 239 passengers and crew, was last detected on radar crossing the northern end of the Malacca Strait at 2.40 am, more than an hour after it lost contact over the South China Sea.
But with the Indonesians and civilian radar operators unable to confirm the new radar track and air force chief Rodzali Daud saying he had been misquoted, it still left open the question why the pilot could not send a distress signal or otherwise
communicate he was in trouble?
It was the air force which raised the possibility of a turn-back in the first place. That was later given fresh impetus by the decision to switch part of the international search effort from the South China Sea to the western coast of Malaysia and the peninsular itself.
With so many people speaking at cross-purposes, Malaysia's handling of the crisis is coming under increasing scrutiny. Critics believe it is now time for Kuala Lumpur to pool all available resources and involve foreign governments in more than just the search.
One thing seems clear: only when the wreckage is found will experts be able to determine how an aircraft with an unsurpassed safety record could vanish in clear skies long after reaching cruising altitude at 35,000 feet on its six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
But, in the absence of a Mayday and any real clarity about its flight path, investigators are working on a gamut of theories ranging from catastrophic electrical or structural failure to pilot suicide, a hijack - or a mid-air explosion.
Boeing has so far been silent on the most recent and perhaps most compelling theory which suggests that cracking and corrosion in the fuselage skin could have led to rapid decompression and the loss of the structural integrity of the aircraft.
Only last month, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved a new airworthiness directive for some older Boeing 777s after one operator reported finding a 16-inch crack under the plane's satellite communication antenna adapter.
If Flight 370 did in fact have this problem, it would not have been immediately detected, with depressurization gradually sucking the oxygen out of the cabin and disorientating the passengers and crew.
Beyond that, it is difficult to speculate. At some point, there could well have been an explosive release of pressure which destroyed the plane's communications and either threw it off course or caused the pilots to turn the plane around.
Criminal acts can't be ruled out either. While two young Iranians travelling on stolen Italian and Austrian passports may well have been seeking asylum in Europe, as Interpol believes, that still doesn't rule out terrorism or a hijacking as a possible cause.
Altogether, 613 passengers and crew members have been killed in 16 known airline sabotage cases in Asia since a bomb concealed in the tail brought down a Philippine Airlines DC3 in the Sibuyan Sea with 13 people aboard in May, 1949.
In fact, the Philippines has been the scene of six of such incidents, including the detonation of a bomb aboard a Philippine Airlines Boeing 747 about an hour into a flight from Cebu to Tokyo in December, 1994, killing one of the 273 passengers aboard but failing to bring the plane down.
Pakistani terrorist Ramzi Yousef, who had planted the device while traveling on the proceeding leg from Manila, was later arrested in Islamabad and convicted of the World Trade Center bombing the previous year.
Yousef was carrying out a dress rehearsal for the foiled Bojinka plot, in which al-Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaik Mohammad planned the destruction of 11 jetliners flying from the United States to Asia, the bombs all timed to explode over the Pacific Ocean or South China Sea.
It would have been worse than 9/11. With a total of 4,000 passengers on the target list, American intelligence sources said that some of the micro-devices were to be planted on the upper deck of Boeing 747s so they would devastate the cockpits and kill the flight crew.
The two worst Asian sabotage disasters were the bombing of a Cathay Pacific Convair 880 over Vietnam's Central Highlands in June, 1972, and the downing of a Korea Air Boeing 707 in Myanmar's Gulf of Martaban in November, 1987, which together killed 196 people.
There are some eerie parallels between the Cathay Pacific case and the Malaysia Airlines incident. Flight 00Z, with 81 people aboard, took off from Bangkok bound for Hong Kong. It was just short of the Vietnamese coast when it crashed near Pleiku, in the Central Highlands.
Flown into what was then an active war zone, British air-crash investigators Vernon Clancey and Eric Newton spotted a jagged hole in the central fuselage and other tell-tale evidence indicating that a bomb had exploded in the cabin at the plane's cruising altitude of 29,000 feet.
That, they said, would have caused massive decompression, crimping the control cables running from the cockpit to the tail. The aircraft keeled over and began to disintegrate, the cockpit and the tail breaking off from the central fuselage on the plunge into triple-canopy jungle.
Five years earlier, in a pioneering piece of detective work, Clancey and Newton had determined from a single waterlogged cushion floating in the Mediterranean that a bomb had brought down a British European Airways Comet jetliner off the Isle of Rhodes, killing all 66 aboard.
The two men were fond of saying that cushions and bodies were ideal for collecting things - in the Comet's case, tiny fragments of metal, not normally found in an aircraft, which had been traveling at 10,000 feet per second. Only a bomb could have caused that.
The same evidence was found in the wreckage of a Yugoslavian airliner, brought down across a wooden hillside in Czechoslovakia's northern mountains in 1972. The sole survivor, a hostess, miraculously sustained only scratches and two broken legs after falling 29,000 feet in the tail section of the plane.
From pit marks and chemical residue on the walls and upper surface of the luggage bay - and his own experience from investigating 15 aircraft sabotage cases - Clancey was able to conclude that the suitcase bomb had contained five pounds of explosive.
The Cathay Pacific bomber erred in his timing. If he had got it right, the plane would have vanished into the South China Sea, where it would have been difficult to recover - as it was with the wreckage of the Comet, which defied all of the US navy's efforts to raise it from 6,000 feet under water.
Over the next few weeks, suspicions grew around Thai police lieutenant Somchai Chaiyasut after it was discovered the blast had gone off under the seats occupied by his 20-year-old common law wife, Somwang Prompin, and his seven-year-old daughter, Sonthoya. They were going on shopping trip to Hong Kong.
Sonthoya was never found. Investigators believed her window seat and other debris were sucked out of the blast hole and whipped down the side of the aircraft where they smashed into the horizontal and vertical stabilizers and contributed to the plane's loss of control.
Over the subsequent weeks, the evidence piled up. Somchai had not only insured the two victims for 5.5 million baht (about US$167,000), but he had bought C4 plastic explosive from a fellow policemen and had holes drilled in a black cosmetics case, similar to that which Somwang had carried aboard the plane.
On an earlier guided tour of a Thai International DC 8, he had asked airline staff about the most vulnerable part of an aircraft. Even more suspiciously, he had boarded the ill-fated flight before departure and made a fuss about ensuring his wife and little girl were seated over the wing.
There was also his bizarre behavior. In Bangkok, he had sought permission on several occasions to photograph Somwang's body, explaining that his parents had never met her. It was not recognizable anyway because she had sustained the worst injuries of any of the dead.
But despite what appeared to be his overwhelming guilt, the Thai Criminal Court acquitted him of the sabotage charges in May, 1974, no doubt influenced by military strongman Prapat Charusathien's emotional claim, made soon after the bombing, that a loving Thai father would never kill his daughter for money.
Somchai sued for and received all the insurance money, but he didn't live long enough to enjoy it. In 1983, two years after he resigned as a newly promoted police colonel, he died of liver cancer at the age of 43. Many people thought justice had finally prevailed.
Fifteen years later, when a Korean Air Boeing 707 with 115 people aboard disappeared from radar screens over Burma's Gulf of Martaban on a flight from Baghdad to Seoul, the South Korean government seemed to know almost instinctively that it was the work of North Korean saboteurs.
In October, 1983, North Korean agents had triggered a bomb at a mausoleum in Rangoon, killing 21 people, including three South Korean cabinet ministers, but missing its intended target, President Chun Doo-hwan, who had yet to arrive for a wreath-laying.
Some of the wreckage from the ill-fated Flight 858 was washed up on Thai beaches, but no bodies were recovered, and they never did find the flight data recorder or the cockpit voice recorder, which would have thrown little light on the disaster anyway.
The bombers, two North Korean agents who had placed C4 plastic explosive and PLX liquid explosive in an overhead storage bin before leaving the plane during a stopover in Abu Dhabi, were quickly traced to Bahrain.
The elderly male agent killed himself with a cyanide-laced cigarette. But his companion, Kim Hyun-hui, was overpowered before she could follow suit, savagely biting a police officer when he flicked the cigarette out of her mouth.
Flown back to Seoul, a wooden gag in place to prevent her chewing off her tongue, Kim was initially given the death penalty. But she was later pardoned after it was decided she had been brainwashed into taking part in the bombing, which she claimed was personally ordered by Kim Jong-il.
South Korean agents had already shown they were adept at torturing political activists, but they tried a softer approach in this case. Placed in a car and driven around Seoul, Kim soon broke down after realizing everything she had been told about the South was a lie.
"I deserved the death penalty for what I did, but I believe my life was spared because I was the only witness to this terror perpetrated by North Korea," she said in an interview last year. "As the only witness, it is my destiny to testify about the truth."
John McBeth is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a Jakarta-based columnist for the Straits Times of Singapore.
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