Military officials in neighboring Thailand said Tuesday their own radar showed an unidentified plane, possibly Flight 370, flying toward the strait beginning minutes after the Malaysian jet’s transponder signal was lost.
Air force spokesman Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn said the Thai military doesn’t know whether the plane it detected was Flight 370.
Thailand’s failure to quickly share possible information about the plane may not substantially change what Malaysian officials now know, but it raises questions about the degree to which some countries are sharing their defense data. At a minimum, safety experts said, the radar data could have saved time and effort that was initially spent searching the South China Sea, many miles from the Indian Ocean.
“It’s tough to tell, but that is a material fact that I think would have mattered,” said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12:40 a.m. March 8. Its transponder, which allows air traffic controllers to identify and track it, ceased communicating at 1:20 a.m.
Montol said that at 1:28 a.m., Thai military radar “was able to detect a signal, which was not a normal signal, of a plane flying in the direction opposite from the MH370 plane,” back toward Kuala Lumpur. The plane later turned right, toward Butterworth, a Malaysian city along the Strait of Malacca. The radar signal was infrequent and did not include data such as the flight number.
When asked why it took so long to release the information, Montol said, “Because we did not pay any attention to it. The Royal Thai Air Force only looks after any threats against our country.” He said the plane never entered Thai airspace and that Malaysia’s initial request for information in the early days of the search was not specific.
“When they asked again and there was new information and assumptions from (Malaysian) Prime Minister Najib Razak, we took a look at our information again,” Montol said. “It didn’t take long for us to figure out, although it did take some experts to find out about it.”
The search area for the plane initially focused on the South China Sea. Pings that a satellite detected from the plane hours after its communications went down eventually led authorities to concentrate instead on two vast arcs — one into Central Asia and the other into the Indian Ocean.
Malaysia said over the weekend the loss of communications and change in the aircraft’s course were deliberate, whether it was the pilots or others aboard who were responsible.
As confirmation that someone was guiding the plane after it disappeared from civilian radar, airline pilots and aviation safety experts said an onboard computer called the flight management system would have to be deliberately programmed in order to follow the route taken by the plane as described by Malaysian authorities.
“If you are going to fly the airplane to a waypoint that is not a straight … route to Beijing, and you were going to command the flight management computer and the autopilot system, you really have to know how to fly the airplane,” said John Gadzinski, a U.S. Boeing 737 captain.