(Updates with duration of search in eighth paragraph.)
May 2 (Bloomberg) -- On the day Flight 370 vanished, air- traffic controllers and Malaysian Air struggled for hours to understand what was happening even as the country’s military watched the plane appear to reverse course.
The initial confusion was disclosed yesterday in Malaysian government documents tracing the start of a mystery that began in the early morning hours on March 8. Malaysian and Vietnamese controllers traded phone calls and relayed a tip from the airline that the jet may have gone to Cambodia, the papers show.
As that exchange unfolded, the Malaysian military detected an unidentified radar target believed to have been the Boeing Co. 777-200ER as it headed west across the country, veering off its intended route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.
“The aircraft was categorized as friendly by the radar operator and therefore no further action was taken at the time,” according to a statement from Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who was informed of the tracking about nine hours after civilian officials lost contact.
The statement and documents, including a preliminary report dated April 9 and recordings of radio calls, gave a glimpse of the fragmentary information that filtered among controllers, Malaysian Air and the government amid a dawning realization that a plane carrying 239 people had gone missing.
The materials gave no new clues on why a radar beacon on Flight 370 went dark shortly before controllers’ last radio call with the jet. Also still unexplained was why Malaysia waited seven days to reveal that it had spotted Flight 370’s turnabout.
Investigators have concluded the plane flew south toward Australia and crashed in the Indian Ocean after running out of fuel. The hunt for wreckage is in its 56th day today, the longest for a missing passenger jet in modern aviation history. Weeks of patrols by planes, ships and a robot submarine have found nothing.
Malaysia will intensify efforts for the missing plane and the government has spoken to several companies on how they could assist in the search, Hishammuddin said at a press conference today. The search may go on for as long as 12 months depending on weather conditions, Angus Houston, who heads Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre, said in Kuala Lumpur today.
Houston said he is confident the area being searched is the right place and Bluefin-21, the submersible scanning the ocean floor, will eventually find something.
There was no sign of an emergency or tension in the cockpit in five recordings of radio contacts with controllers. The calls, in the clipped cadence of air-traffic communication, began with delivery of the flight plan while the 777 was on the ground and ended with a final message at 1:19 a.m. local time.
After a controller instructed the crew to speak to Vietnamese controllers on a different frequency, a pilot responded: “Ah, good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero.”
Controllers lost radar contact with Flight 370 at 1:21 a.m. Vietnamese controllers contacted their Malaysian counterparts 17 minutes later because the pilots hadn’t been in touch, according to a log of early actions in the case.
At 1:57 a.m., the Vietnam controllers reported failing to reach Flight 370 on “many” frequencies and with the help of other nearby aircraft.
Then Cambodia, a country that hugs Vietnam’s western border, became part of the narrative. Shortly after 2 a.m., Malaysian Air told authorities that it “was able to exchange signals with the flight,” and that the plane may have flown into Cambodian airspace.
That idea was quashed about 90 minutes later, when Malaysian Air told controllers that its estimate of the plane’s location was “not reliable for aircraft positioning,” according to the log. By 4:25 a.m., controllers had begun querying authorities in Hong Kong, Beijing and Singapore.
All the while, Malaysian military radar tracked the plane, which remained unidentified because its transponder beacon wasn’t functioning, according to Hishammuddin’s statement.
At 5:20 a.m., about four hours after civilian authorities lost contact, someone identified only as “Capt” spoke to controllers. “He opined that based on known information, ‘MH370 never left Malaysian airspace,’” according to the log, which didn’t give the source of that information or indicate whether any action was taken.
Military authorities replayed a recording of the radar track at 8:30 a.m., more than seven hours after the plane’s disappearance, according to Hishammuddin’s statement.
That information was passed up through the ranks and Hishammuddin was alerted at 10:30 a.m. He then informed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, according to the statement.
Two ships and a military aircraft were sent to waters off the northwest coast of Malaysia to start searching. It wasn’t until March 15 that Najib confirmed the plane’s course in a press conference. While the motive behind Flight 370’s southerly heading remains unknown, Najib has said the jet was deliberately steered back toward Malaysia as it reached Vietnam’s airspace.
Malaysia has set up a team to probe the disappearance that will consist of three groups with specific focus areas, not including any criminal investigation.
In another sign that the Flight 370 mystery is entering a new phase even as the hunt for information goes on, Malaysian Airline System Bhd. said yesterday that it will make advance payments to passengers’ next of kin.
The payouts won’t affect families’ rights to claim compensation later, and will be calculated as part of the final sum, according to an e-mailed statement from the carrier, which didn’t say how much would be disbursed.
Assistance centers for relatives set up around the world will close by May 7, and passengers are being advised to return to their homes and await updates on the investigation instead of staying in hotels, the airline said.
Beijing’s Metropark Lido Hotel has been a flashpoint for confrontations. Chinese nationals accounted for about two-thirds of those on Flight 370, and tempers have flared in and around the regular briefings held at the hotel by Malaysian Air.
Last week, frustrated relatives of passengers detained airline staff members at the hotel for more than 10 hours as they demanded a fuller accounting from Malaysia’s government. In March, after Malaysia’s Najib declared that the jet had gone down at sea, a man at the hotel hit and kicked journalists before police restrained him.
Malaysia’s April 9 report on the disappearance, which officials sent to the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization, includes a recommendation that the body develop standards for real-time aircraft tracking.
“There have now been two occasions during the last five years when large commercial air-transport aircraft have gone missing and their last position was not accurately known,” according to the report, referring to Air France Flight 447, which was lost in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.
“This uncertainty resulted in significant difficulty in locating the aircraft in a timely manner,” the government’s report said.
The recommendation didn’t say whether a real-time tracking system should be designed so pilots can’t switch it off. Aircraft designers and aviation regulators currently give pilots the option of cutting power to electronic devices in case of a fire or another emergency.
Boeing is supporting efforts to expand aircraft tracking, the Chicago-based manufacturer said in a statement posted on its website.
--With assistance from Julie Johnsson in Chicago.