NEW: Thai data bolster belief that the jet turned sharply westward
Experts disagree over whether plane could have slipped past radar undetected
Analyst: Radar blind spots could be determined "easily"
Security consultant: Someone could have planned a route to avoid detection
Could a massive passenger jet slip past radar, cross international borders and land undetected?
That’s a key question investigators are weighing as they continue the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished March 8 on a flight between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Beijing.
Radar does have some blind spots, and it’s possible to fly at lower altitudes to avoid being spotted, analysts told CNN.
But experts are divided over whether that could be what happened to the missing Boeing 777.
Jeffrey Beatty, a security consultant and former FBI special agent, says someone could have planned a route that avoided radar detection.
“It certainly is possible to fly through the mountains in that part of the world and not be visible on radar. Also, an experienced pilot, anyone who wanted to go in that direction, could certainly plot out all the known radar locations, and you can easily determine, where are the radar blind spots?” he said. “It’s the type of things the Americans did when they went into Pakistan to go after Osama bin Laden.”
Information about the plane’s path came into sharper focus on Tuesday, when the Thai government released data that bolsters the belief among investigators that the missing jet took a sharp westward turn after communication was lost.
The Thai military was receiving normal flight path and communication data from the jet on its planned route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing until 1:22 a.m., when it disappeared from its radar.
Six minutes later, the Thai military detected an unknown signal, a Royal Thai Air Force spokesman told CNN. This unknown aircraft, possibly Flight 370, was heading in the opposite direction.
Malaysia says the evidence suggests the plane was deliberately flown off course, turning westward and traveling back over the Malay Peninsula and out into the Indian Ocean.
The Thai data corroborate what the Malaysian military had found earlier – that the plane did indeed turn around toward the Strait of Malacca.
But the Thai contact was short-lived. “The unknown aircraft’s signal was sending out intermittently, on and off, and on and off,” the spokesman said. The Thai military lost the unknown aircraft’s signal because of the limits of its military radar, he said.
On Monday, the Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times reported that the plane may have flown low to the ground – 5,000 feet or less – and used mountainous terrain as cover to evade radar detection. The newspaper cited unnamed sources for its reporting, which CNN could not immediately confirm.
And a senior Indian military official told CNN on Monday that military radar near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands isn’t as closely watched as other radar systems. That leaves open the possibility that Indian radar systems may not have picked up the airplane at the time of its last known Malaysian radar contact, near the tiny island of Palau Perak in the Strait of Malacca.
Malaysian officials said Monday that they were not aware of the Malaysian newspaper’s report.
“It does not come from us,” said Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.
U.S. officials have said they don’t think it’s likely the plane flew north over land as it veered off course. If it had, they’ve said, radar somewhere would have detected it. Landing the plane somewhere also seems unlikely, since that would require a large runway, refueling capability and the ability to fix the plane, the officials have said.
Analysts interviewed by CNN said that it would be extremely difficult to fly such a large aircraft so close to the ground over a long period of time, and that it’s not even clear that doing so would keep the plane off radar scopes.
“Five-thousand isn’t really low enough to evade the radar, and that’s kind of where general aviation flies all the time anyway, and we’re visible to radar,” said Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“It just seems really highly improbable, unless we’ve been overestimating a lot of other countries’ radar system capabilities,” said Daniel Rose, an aviation and maritime attorney.
Buck Sexton, a former CIA officer who’s now national security editor for TheBlaze.com, said radar would have detected the plane if it flew over land.