In MH370 probe, experienced US investigators stay out of limelight as Malaysia leads

Military officers Phung Truong Son (left), Vu Duc Long (centre) and Pham Minh Tuan discuss a map of a search area before their departure to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at a military airport in Ho Chi Minh city March 14, 2014. — Reut
Military officers Phung Truong Son (left), Vu Duc Long (centre) and Pham Minh Tuan discuss a map of a search area before their departure to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at a military airport in Ho Chi Minh city March 14, 2014. — Reut

KUALA LUMPUR, Mar 14 — Despite criticism of Malaysia’s handling, US aviation investigators have insisted on letting their local counterparts take the lead in probing the missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 and stay out of the limelight.

A report by US daily New York Times (NYT) today claimed that although the American team are made of the world’s foremost air crash investigators, they will only provide technical assistance as Malaysia has the jurisdiction over the probe.

“Most of the local guys are pretty darned good … The problem they have is, they don’t do it a lot. We do this a lot,” Thomas Haueter, a former chief of air safety at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told NYT.

According to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, also called the Chicago Convention, Malaysia has the jurisdiction in the investigation, although other countries are obliged to provide aid.

Haueter said that a US team would usually be comprised of investigators from NTSB, the US’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), plane builder Boeing, and General Electric, which builds jet engines.

In the case of MH370, the NTSB has sent its senior radar expert, Scott Dunham, a former air traffic controller and a veteran investigator previously involved near-misses cases.

It is believed that Dunham is the best man to “make sense” out of the limited civilian radar data and military data.

Even when the US team is a “huge army of Americans showing up”, Haueter said, they would usually just send two members whenever they meet with local aviation safety authorities.

“We try very hard not to make it look like we are running the investigation, even if we more or less are,” said Bernard Loeb, another former chief at NTSB who leads the team of American experts whenever a crash involves an American airline or an aircraft made in the US.

The main goal of the US team is to find out any flaw in the hardware, maintenance practices or operations of an American-built aircraft which caused it to crash.

However, NYT noted that it might encounter conflicting agendas with the host country, claiming that some parties may try to shift the blame if the crash involved a government-owned airline, government-provided air traffic services, or the misconduct of a pilot from the country.

The Americans’ refusal to take charge might have also contributed to the leaks of information—sometimes contradictory—coming out from the Malaysian government, military, aviation authority, and MAS itself.

Upon its first announcement of joining the investigation, NTSB had been bombarded with questions, which led them to release a second announcement saying that is only “providing technical assistance” and will not be commenting further. FAA has also similarly remained mum.

“The FAA is going to be dead silent, because the NTSB is so careful about controlling

information,” said Steven B. Wallace, who formerly heads FAA’s office of accident investigation.

Former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz was among those who criticised Malaysia’s handling of the crisis, describing it as the “worst” the industry has seen.

Defence and Acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein had since said yesterday that Malaysia followed international air crash protocol in directing search efforts for missing MH370 and is also putting the search and rescue operations above its national security.

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