A relative of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines flight
MH370 shouts at Malaysian representatives during a briefing
at Lido Hotel in Beijing. REUTERS/Jason Lee
Malaysia's government has begun investigating civil
aviation and military authorities to determine why
opportunities to identify and track Malaysia Airlines Flight
MH370 were missed in the chaotic hours after it vanished, two
The preliminary internal enquiries come as tensions mount
between civilian and military authorities over who bears most
responsibility for the initial confusion and any mistakes
that led to a week-long search in the wrong ocean.
"What happened at that time is being investigated and I can't
say any more than that because it involves the military and
the government," a senior government official told Reuters.
In an interview with Reuters last weekend, Malaysia Airlines
Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said internal enquiries
were under way, although he declined to give details.
A government spokesman did not respond to Reuters questions
over whether an investigation had been launched. The senior
government source said it was aimed at getting a detailed
picture of the initial response. It was unclear which
government department was in charge or whether a formal probe
had been opened.
Malaysia's opposition coalition has demanded a parliamentary
inquiry into what happened on the ground in those first few
hours. Government officials have said any formal inquiry
should not begin until the flight's black box recorders are
The Boeing 777 was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew when
it disappeared on March 8. Malaysia says it believes the
plane crashed into the southern Indian Ocean after being
deliberately diverted from its Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route.
A search effort is taking place well out to sea off the
Australian city of Perth to try to locate any wreckage as
well as the recorders which may provide answers to what
MECHANICAL PROBLEM ASSUMED
Interviews with the senior government source and four other
civilian and military officials show that air traffic
controllers and military officials assumed the plane had
turned back to an airport in Malaysia because of mechanical
trouble when it disappeared off civilian radar screens at
1:21 a.m. local time.
That assumption took hold despite no distress call or other
communication coming from the cockpit, which could have been
a clue that the plane had been hijacked or deliberately
The five sources together gave Reuters the most detailed
account yet of events in the hour after the plane vanished.
All declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the
issue and because they were not authorised to speak to the
"The initial assumption was that the aircraft could have
diverted due to mechanical issues or, in the worst case
scenario, crashed," said a senior Malaysian civilian source.
"That is what we were working on."
Officials at Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation, which
oversees air traffic controllers, the Defence Ministry and
the air force directed requests for comment to the prime
minister's office, which did not respond.
One senior military official said air traffic control had
informed the military at around 2:00 a.m. that a plane was
missing. The standard operating procedure was to do so within
15 minutes, he said. Another military source said the
notification was slow in coming, but did not give a time.
Civil aviation officials told Reuters their response was in
line with guidelines, but they did not give a specific time
for when the military was informed.
Once alerted, military radar picked up an unidentified plane
heading west across peninsular Malaysia, the senior military
official said. The air force has said a plane that could have
been MH370 was last plotted on military radar at 2:15 a.m.,
320 km (200 miles) northwest of the west coast state of
PLANE TRACKED IN REAL TIME?
Top military officials have publicly said Malaysia's U.S. and
Russian-made fighter jets stationed at air force bases in
Penang and the east coast state of Kuantan were not scrambled
to intercept the plane because it was not viewed as
"When we were alerted, we got our boys to check the military
radar. We noticed that there was an unmarked plane flying
back but (we) could not confirm (its identity)," said the
senior military source. "Based on the information we had from
ATC (Air Traffic Control) and DCA (Department of Civil
Aviation), we did not send up any jets because it was
possibly mechanical problems and the plane might have been
going back to Penang."
The military has not publicly acknowledged it tracked the
plane in real time as it crossed back over the peninsula.
While fighter jets would not have had enough fuel to track a
Boeing 777 for long and darkness would have complicated the
operation, they could have spotted MH370 flying across
peninsular Malaysia and possibly beyond, aviation experts
That could have enabled Malaysia to get a better fix on where
it was headed and thus possibly ruled out the need to search
off its east coast in the Gulf of Thailand and the South
China Sea, around where MH370 was last seen on civilian
Fighter pilots should be able to scramble within minutes,
aviation experts said, although the time can vary widely from
country to country. In Europe and North America, radar
experts said controllers were trained to coordinate across
civil and military lines and across borders.
They said military jets would have been scrambled, as they
were from a Greek air force base in 2005 when a Helios
Airways jet with 121 people on board lost contact over the
Aegean Sea after suffering a decompression that knocked out
the pilots. Two F-16 jets could see the captain's seat empty
and the first officer slumped over the controls. The plane
crashed in Greece after running out of fuel.
"This raises questions of coordination between military and
civil controllers," former pilot Hugh Dibley, a fellow of the
Royal Aeronautical Society in London, said of Malaysia's
Another contentious issue has been whether the military was
slow in passing on its radar data that showed an unidentified
plane had re-crossed the Malay peninsula.
Two civilian aviation officials said military bureaucracy
delayed the sharing of this information, although they gave
no precise timeframe for when it was handed over.
"The armed forces knew much earlier that the aircraft could
have turned back. That is why the search was expanded to
include the Strait of Malacca within a day or two," said a
second senior civilian source, who was familiar with the
initial search, referring to the narrow stretch of water
between Indonesia and Malaysia, on the western side of the
"But the military did not confirm this until much later due
to resistance from senior officers, and the government needed
to step in. We wasted our time in the South China Sea."
Government sources have said Prime Minister Najib Razak had
to force the military to turn over its raw radar data to
investigators during the first week after the flight's
Military officials have said they did not want to risk
causing confusion by sharing the data before it had been
verified, adding this was why Air Force chief Rodzali Daud
went to the air base in Penang on March 9, where the plane's
final radar plot was recorded.
On the same day, Rodzali said the search was being expanded
to the west coast, although Reuters has not been able to
determine if that meant the data was being shared with other
On March 12, four days after Flight MH370 disappeared,
Rodzali told reporters there was still no confirmation the
unidentified plane had been Flight MH370, but added Malaysia
was sharing the radar data with international civilian and
military authorities, including those from the United States.
Authorities called off the search in the South China Sea on
March 15 after Razak said satellite data showed the plane
could have taken a course anywhere from central Asia to the
southern Indian Ocean.
FEARS OF LOSING JOBS
A sixth source, a senior official in the civil aviation
sector, said the plane's disappearance had exposed
bureaucratic dysfunction in Malaysia, which has rarely been
subject to such international demands for transparency.
"There was never the need for these silos to speak to one
another. It's not because of ill intent, it's just the way
the system was set up," the official said.
The accounts given to Reuters reveal growing tensions between
civilian officials, the military and Malaysia Airlines over
whether more could have been done in those initial hours.
One of the Reuters sources said military officials in
particular were concerned they could lose their jobs.
Tensions have also emerged between the government and
state-controlled Malaysia Airlines.
Malaysia's defence minister and acting transport minister,
Hishammuddin Hussein, said in an interview with China's CCTV
that the airline would have to "answer" for its mistakes in
dealing with the relatives of the some 150 Chinese passengers
In his interview with Reuters, Malaysia Airlines chief Ahmad
Jauhari played down talk of tension, saying there were
"slight differences of opinion."