* Monday's announcement paves way for crash investigation
* Likely to be even tougher that 2009 Air France case
* Plane debris, if found, should give clues to what happened
By Siva Govindasamy and Tim Hepher
KUALA LUMPUR, March 24 Confirmation that a
missing Malaysian airliner crashed in the Indian Ocean opens the
way for what could be one of the most costly and challenging air
crash investigations in history.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Flight MH370 had
ended far from any runway, signalling a shift of focus from a
search for survivors to a mission to recover bodies and hunt for
debris and black boxes.
Based on fresh analysis of satellite data by UK-based
Inmarsat, Malaysia's decision to declare the
aircraft lost in international waters marks a new phase in a
search which has narrowed to an area southwest of Perth,
A civil investigation is likely to be carried out by
Malaysia with the support of others, two people familiar with
the matter said, ending two weeks of apparent legal limbo.
The launch of an official air crash investigation would give
Malaysia power to coordinate and sift evidence, but it may still
face critics, especially China.
Beijing has criticised Malaysia over the progress of the
search and on Monday demanded that it hand over satellite data.
Inmarsat said its latest technical analysis indicated the
jet had crashed in the Indian Ocean west of Perth.
Despite unconfirmed reports of possible debris, experts said
it remained a mammoth task to locate wreckage without getting a
closer fix on where the Boeing 777, with 239 passengers
and crew on board, came down.
"If there is no tighter estimate of the location, they face
the same challenges as before, looking for debris and trying to
trace backwards," said Matthew Greaves, head of the Safety and
Accident Investigation Centre at Britain's Cranfield University.
France's air crash investigation agency, the BEA, which has
briefed Malaysia on its experience in searching for the wreckage
of an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009, said
the search area would have to be narrowed before it would be any
use starting to search underwater.
It took French investigators two years to find the wreckage
of the Airbus A330, long after the emergency locating beacons on
its black box recorders had stopped pinging their position.
"I think this will be considerably more challenging because
(Air France) AF447 crashed close to its last known position and
wreckage was found within days, so that gave a much smaller area
of seabed to search," said Paul Hayes, director of safety at
UK-based aviation consultancy Flightglobal Ascend.
The official cost for the French-led underwater search for
AF447 was 32 million euros ($44 million), but experts say it may
have cost three or four times more after foreign and military
costs. The current operation is seen as even more complex.
Once any debris is discovered and examined, forensic experts
will try to extract as much information as they can about the
aircraft's angle and condition when it entered the water.
Signs of bending or crushing can give some idea of the force
of impact, while the concentration of different parts in one
area might indicate whether the plane was intact or broke up at
height. Even individual rivets can offer up some clues.
"Investigators are skilled at taking a huge amount out of
very little," said Greaves.
Malaysian police, who have started their own criminal
inquiry, are investigating suspicions that the aircraft was
deliberately diverted through hijack or sabotage. But
investigators have not ruled out technical problems on the
11-year old plane.
Because of the peculiar circumstances in which the jet flew
on for hours after changing course shortly after leaving Kuala
Lumpur for Beijing on March 8, some evidence may be missing.
Cockpit voice recorders keep two hours of tape before
overwriting. Malaysian investigators believe the jet turned off
course about 40 minutes into the flight but flew on for hours
after that. However, flight data recorders can shed some light
on cockpit behaviour such as positions of pilot seats and doors.
"It will be a long time before they give up and if there is
any chance of recovering wreckage they will get to the bottom of
what happened, but they may never get to the bottom of why it
happened," Greaves said.
Malaysia's department of civil aviation will take the lead
in a civil investigation to be carried out under United Nations
rules, according to two people familiar with the matter.
But its relative lack of experience means it is likely to
rely on foreign agencies, with some experts predicting a key
role for Australia which is coordinating search efforts.
The United States will be accredited automatically as the
country where the Boeing 777 was designed and made, as will
Britain which supplied the Rolls-Royce engines. China is
expected to participate because of the 152 Chinese passengers.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)