Did Missing Malaysia flight DISINTEGRATE at 35,000 feet? Search team find what they believe is part of plane door and tail as Interpol probes if four people boarded using stolen passports

// World | Did Missing Malaysia flight DISINTEGRATE at 35,000 feet? Search team find what they believe is part of plane door and tail as Interpol probes if four people boarded using stolen passports
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  • Search team finds what it believes is part of a door and a plane's tail
  • Authorities say at least two people were travelling on stolen passports
  • Interpol said its database with information about them wasn't checked
  • The tickets they used were bought through through a Chinese airline
  • Flight MH370 declared missing nearly 90 minutes after it was due to land
  • The missing 227 passengers and 12 crew were from 14 different countries

By Richard Shears and Lizzie Parry and Leon Watson

PUBLISHED: 05:11 GMT, 9 March 2014 | UPDATED: 18:07 GMT, 9 March 2014

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Debris from the missing Boeing 777 flight is believed to have been found off Vietnam as Interpol investigates whether up to four passengers boarded the plane using stolen passports.

A Vietnamese search team has found what they believe is part of a door and an airplane's tail in the first major breakthrough in the hunt for missing aircraft.

The suspected fragments have been located around 50 miles from south-west of Tho Chu Island, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Investigators are narrowing the focus of their inquiries on the possibility that the plane disintegrated in mid-flight, a senior source said on Sunday

'The fact that we are unable to find any debris so far appears to indicate that the aircraft is likely to have disintegrated at around 35,000 feet,' said the source, who is involved in the investigations in Malaysia.

It comes as Interpol criticised Thailand's lax airport security after it emerged at least two passengers boarded the Malaysia Airlines flight MH307 with stolen passports - giving rise to the possibility that the missing 239 passengers are victims of a terrorist attack.

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From above: A picture taken by personnel on a Vietnamese search aircraft and made available by Tienphong.vn shows what is believed to be a piece of debris of missing Malaysia Airlines airplane at an undisclosed location

From above: A picture taken by personnel on a Vietnamese search aircraft and made available by Tienphong.vn shows what is believed to be a piece of debris of missing Malaysia Airlines airplane at an undisclosed location

Italian tourist Luigi Maraldi, 37, shows his current passport during a press conference at a police station in Phuket island, southern Thailand. One passenger on the missing plane travelled on the stolen passport of Mr Maraldi

Italian tourist Luigi Maraldi, 37, shows his current passport during a press conference at a police station in Phuket island, southern Thailand. One passenger on the missing plane travelled on the stolen passport of Mr Maraldi

Italian national Mr Maraldi had reported his passport stolen in August 2013

Italian national Mr Maraldi had reported his passport stolen in August 2013

The possibility of a further two stolen passports used on the same flight is now being investigated as it emerges that no cross checks were carried out against Interpol's lost and stolen database.

Procedural checks would have revealed that at least two passengers were travelling on stolen passports stolen.

The passports were used to buy tickets booked in the names of Italian Luigi Maraldi and Austrian Christian Kozel on March 6, 2014, and issued in the Thai city of Pattaya, a popular beach resort south of the capital Bangkok.

Luigi Maraldi, 37, the owner of one of the passports, was listed as the sole Italian national on the missing flight. This afternoon he told how the document was stolen while he was on holiday in July last year on the island Phuket.

Mr Maraldi said it happened when a deal went wrong at a motorcycle shop in Patong.

Mr Maraldi reported his passport stolen in Thailand last August and was allowed to travel back to his native Italy on temporary documents.

On Sunday, his father Walter explained the original was stolen after he used it to hire a motorbike.

'Last summer he was in Thailand and handed over the passport so he could hire a scooter but when he brought it back, they said they had already given it back to someone else, so he reported it stolen,' he said.

Mr Maraldi added:'The whole thing is a mix up - we have no idea who the person was that used my son's passport. The first I knew something had happened was when my son rang from Thailand on Saturday morning to say he was alive.

He said he had seen his name on the news reports as being on the missing airplane and he wanted to let us know he was alive and well. To be honest, I had no idea whet he was talking about as I hadn't seen the news by then.

'Once everything was cleared up, we said goodbye and I went and watched the news - a few minutes later the Italian Foreign Ministry rang to ask if I was the father of Luigi Maraldi and to say that he was on the passenger list.

'They were amazed when I said they were mistaken as I had just spoken to him and he was fine. They asked me for his number so they could call and check for themselves.

'They said his passport had been used by someone and they needed to check for certain he was ok. We are delighted that he is ok but he was never really involved in the disaster directly.'

Risman Siregar (left) comforts his wife Erlina Panjaitan (centre). They are the parents of Firman Chandra Siregar, a 24 year-old passenger

Risman Siregar (left) comforts his wife Erlina Panjaitan (centre). They are the parents of Firman Chandra Siregar, a 24 year-old passenger

Relatives of victims from the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 plane arrive for a meeting with airline officials in Beijing

Relatives of victims from the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 plane arrive for a meeting with airline officials in Beijing

Relatives of those on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 arrive for a meeting with airline officials in Beijing on March 9

Relatives of those on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 arrive for a meeting with airline officials in Beijing on March 9

The owner of the other stolen passport was Austrian citizen Christian Kozel, 30, who's name also appeared on the passenger manifest. 

Mr Kozel discovered he had been listed when uniformed police officers turned up at his home in Salzburg at the weekend.

He said: 'I was pretty shocked when I saw them at my door, and was relieved to find out that although I was dead, at least it was only on paper.'

But it still left him with a lot of worried friends and relatives that he had to reassure after it was reported that he was dead. He said he had reported the passport as stolen while he was in the same part of Thailand two years ago, and that it had apparently then been used by someone illegally.

In a statement issued today, the France-based international police body said information about the thefts was entered into its database after they were stolen in Thailand.

Officials from Italy and Austria also confirmed that the travel documents of both men were reported stolen in Thailand.

Interpol said it was now investigating all other passports used to board flight MH370 and was working to determine the 'true identities' of the passengers who used the stolen passports.

'Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane, it is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol's databases,' Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said in a statement.

Noble expressed frustration that few of Interpol's 190 member countries 'systematically' search the database to determine whether documents being used to board a plane are registered as lost or stolen.

'This is a situation we had hoped never to see. For years Interpol has asked why should countries wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates,' he said.

Rescue operation: A Vietnamese air force pilot touches the controls of a transport plane today

Rescue operation: A Vietnamese air force pilot touches the controls of a transport plane today

Rescue vessel Rescue 101, loaded with a Chinese emergency response team, departs from Sanya Port

Rescue vessel Rescue 101, loaded with a Chinese emergency response team, departs from Sanya Port

PILOT ENJOYED FLYING SO MUCH HE HAD HIS OWN SIMULATOR

Pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah

The pilot of a Malaysia Airlines jet that went missing on Saturday enjoyed flying the Boeing 777 so much that he spent his off days tinkering with a flight simulator of the plane that he had set up at home, current and former co-workers said.

Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, captain of the airliner carrying 239 people bound for Beijing from the Malaysian capital, had always wanted to become a pilot and joined the national carrier in 1981.

Airline staff who worked with the pilot said Zaharie knew the ins and outs of the Boeing 777 extremely well, as he was always practicing with the simulator. They declined to be identified due to company policy.

'He was an aviation tech geek. You could ask him anything and he would help you. That is the kind of guy he is,' said a Malaysia Airlines co-pilot who had flown with Zaharie in the past.

Zaharie set up the Boeing 777 simulator at his home in a suburb on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital where many airline staff stay as it provides quick access to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The security breach has led to fears that missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH307 may have been taken down by terrorists to be heightened.

It comes as the chief of the Malaysian Air Force said that radar indicated the missing plane may have turned back before it crashed.

'What we have done is actually look into the recording on the radar that we have and we realised there is a possibility the aircraft did make a turn back,' Rodzali Daud, the Royal Malaysian Air Force chief, told reporters at a news conference.

Despite dozens of military and civilians vessels and aircraft criss-crossing waters to the east and west of Malaysia, no wreckage has been found, although oil slicks have been reported in the sea south of Vietnam.

Malaysian Security officials earlier revealed they had footage of two passengers traveling on passports stolen in Thailand - one registered to an Italian and the other an Austrian - making their way through Kuala Lumpur passport control to the aircraft.

The passengers being checked had all bought their tickets through China Southern Airlines.

It appears the the tickets linked to the Italian and Austrian passports were bought together in Thai baht at identical prices, according to China's official e-ticket verification system Travelsky. The ticket numbers are contiguous, which indicates the tickets were issued together.

It follows reports that an anonymous pilot told Malaysian newspapers that he had heard a 'mumbled' last transmission from the aircraft - although this is contradicted by air traffic controllers who say there was no distress call.

This oil slick was found in the Gulf of Thailand, about 90 miles south of Vietnam's Tho Chu Island - the same area where the flight disappeared from radar early Saturday morning

This oil slick was found in the Gulf of Thailand, about 90 miles south of Vietnam's Tho Chu Island - the same area where the flight disappeared from radar early Saturday morning

An aerial view of what is believed to be an oil slick aircraft stretching a length of about 80 km in the sea off the Vietnamese coast. Investigators are trying to determine whether there is a link between the slick and the missing 777

An aerial view of what is believed to be an oil slick aircraft stretching a length of about 80 km in the sea off the Vietnamese coast. Investigators are trying to determine whether there is a link between the slick and the missing 777 

U.S. officials also confirmed they have dispatched a team of safety experts including FBI agents to Southeast Asia to assist in the investigation of the Boeing 777, which disappeared shortly after takeoff with 239 people on board.

While the wreckage of the plane has still not been found, new photos of oil slicks in the South China Sea have emerged and a growing body of evidence is beginning to point towards a terrorist attack.

And dramatically, a second pilot who was in the skies over the South China Sea when the 777 vanished has spoken about hearing 'mumbling' at the other end of communications with the plane.

The captain, who asked to remain anonymous, told Malaysian media outlets he was asked to get in contact with the pilot flying the missing plane on an emergency frequency and establish their position.

He said he believes he spoke to the co-pilot, but that there were 'interference' and 'mumbling' before they lost the connection.

Earlier on Saturday, two oil slicks were spotted by the Vietnamese air force in the Gulf of Thailand, about 90 miles south of Vietnam's Tho Chu Island - the same area where the flight disappeared from radar.

The plane - carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members - took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12.21am (4.21pm GMT) Saturday bound for Beijing, where it was expected to land at 6.30am (10.30pm GMT).

But after reaching 35,000ft and 120 nautical miles off the coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu the plane vanished.

IBM employee Philip Wood, 51, was identified as the only adult passenger traveling on a U.S. passport on Flight MH307. 

Two other American travelers have been named as toddlers Leo Meng, two, and Nicole Meng, four.

Family members of passengers aboard a missing plane cry at a hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia

Family members of passengers aboard a missing plane cry at a hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia

Members of Fo Guang Shan rescue team offer a special prayer for passengers aboard a missing plane, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia

Members of Fo Guang Shan rescue team offer a special prayer for passengers aboard a missing plane, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia

Buddhist monks offer a special prayer for passengers aboard a missing plane

Buddhist monks offer a special prayer for passengers aboard a missing plane

Hugh Dunleavy (center), Malaysia Airlines head of commercial, speaks to media at Lido Hotel in Beijing, China

Hugh Dunleavy (center), Malaysia Airlines head of commercial, speaks to media at Lido Hotel in Beijing, China

Personnel inspect life jackets put inside a Soviet-made AN-26, used by the Vietnamese Air Force as a search and rescue aircraft, as it is refueled before making an other flight over the seas off Vietnam

Personnel inspect life jackets put inside a Soviet-made AN-26, used by the Vietnamese Air Force as a search and rescue aircraft, as it is refueled before making an other flight over the seas off Vietnam

The emergency response team sent by China's Ministry of Transport set out early Sunday morning from Sanya to sea area where missing Malaysia Airline flight MH 370 may have crashed

The emergency response team sent by China's Ministry of Transport set out early Sunday morning from Sanya to sea area where missing Malaysia Airline flight MH 370 may have crashed

And a U.S. technology firm says 20 of its employees were aboard. Jacey Zuniga, a spokeswoman for Freescale Semiconductor, of Austin, Texas, says 12 Malaysian and eight Chinese employees are 'confirmed passengers'.

She says no American citizen Freescale employees were on the flight.

'At present, we are solely focused on our employees and their families,' Gregg Lowe, president and chief executive of Freescale said. 'Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this tragic event.'

The company has assembled a team of counsellors for those affected by the tragedy.  

Anxious: Families of those on board the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH307 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, face an anxious wait for news of the search mission at Kuala Lumpur airport

Anxious: Families of those on board the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH307 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, face an anxious wait for news of the search mission at Kuala Lumpur airport

Grief: Family and friends waiting for the plane to arrive break down as they hear the jet has gone missing. The flight vanished off the coast of Vietnam around two hours after taking off

Grief: Family and friends waiting for the plane to arrive break down as they hear the jet has gone missing. The flight vanished off the coast of Vietnam around two hours after taking off

Despair: There were 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board Flight MH370, from 14 different nations

Despair: There were 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board Flight MH370, from 14 different nations

Malaysian graphic
The two Canadian passengers were identified as mining executive Muktesh Mukherjee and his wife Xiaomo Bai

The two Canadian passengers were identified as mining executive Muktesh Mukherjee and his wife Xiaomo Bai

Globetrotters: Australian nationals Catherine and Robert Lawton, from Brisbane, were named as one of three couples from Down Under who were missing

Globetrotters: Australian nationals Catherine and Robert Lawton, from Brisbane, were named as one of three couples from Down Under who were missing

Victims: This handout picture taken on March 7, 2014 and released by Hamid Ramlan shows his daughter Norliakmar Hamid (second right) and her husband Razahan Zamani (right), who were passengers on a missing Malaysia Airlines flight

Victims: This handout picture taken on March 7, 2014 and released by Hamid Ramlan shows his daughter Norliakmar Hamid (second right) and her husband Razahan Zamani (right), who were passengers on a missing Malaysia Airlines flight

Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid
Passenger Firman Siregar

On board: Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid (left) and passenger Firman Siregar (right)

French teenagers Zhao Yan and Hadrien Wattrelos had enrolled together at the Lycee Francais International de Pekin. Both are believed to have been on board

French teenagers Zhao Yan and Hadrien Wattrelos had enrolled together at the Lycee Francais International de Pekin. Both are believed to have been on board

THE POSSIBLE CAUSES THAT COULD HAVE BROUGHT DOWN THE FLIGHT

The most dangerous parts of a flight are takeoff and landing. Incidents rarely happen when midflight.

The disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jet well into its flight has led experts to assume that whatever happened was quick and left the pilots no time to make a distress call.

It initially appears there was either a sudden breakup of the plane or something that led it into a quick, steep dive. Some experts even suggested an act of terrorism.

Possible causes for a crash include:

Catastrophic structural failure This could have damaged the airframe or engines. Given the plane's impressive safety record, experts suggest this is unlikely.

Bad weather Planes are designed to fly though most severe storms, but poor weather has caused crashes in the past. However, the skies were clear in this case. 

Pilot disorientation The pilots could have taken the plane off autopilot and somehow gone course.

Failure of both engines In January 2008, a British Airways 777 crashed about 1,000 feet short of the runway at London's Heathrow Airport. There were no fatalities. Such a scenario is possible, but the plane could glide for up to 20 minutes, giving pilots plenty of time to make an emergency call. 

A bomb Several planes have been brought down by bombs. If the debris field is large it will indicate the plane broke apart high up.

Hijacking A traditional hijacking seems unlikely given that a plane's captors typically land at an airport and have some type of demand. But a 9/11-esque hijacking is possible, with terrorists forcing the plane into the ocean.

Pilot suicide There were two large jet crashes in the late 1990s that investigators suspected were caused by pilots deliberately crashing.

Accidental shoot-down There have been two previous cases of passenger jets being brought down accidentally by the military.

The two Canadian passengers were identified as mining executive Muktesh Mukherjee and his wife Xiaomo Bai.

According to their Facebook pages, the couple had two young sons, who were apparently not on the flight. 

Also named among the passengers were Australian nationals Catherine and Robert Lawton, from Brisbane.

The husband and wife were reportedly traveling with their compatriots Mary and Rodney Burrows.

A third couple from Australia, Li Yuan and Gu Naijun, from Sydney, were also listed as missing.

The lack of an emergency call 'suggests something very sudden and very violent happened,' William Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, said.

Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co, added: 'Either you had a catastrophic event that tore the airplane apart, or you had a criminal act.

'It was so quick and they didn't radio.'

Today, the UK offered assistance with investigations, Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

Mr Hague said it was 'too early to speculate' on the significance of the presence on the flight of up to four passengers with suspect identities.

'It is a terrible tragedy and our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of people awaiting for definitive news,' Mr Hague told Sky News' Murnaghan programme.

'We have offered any assistance that we can give to the Malaysian authorities and of course we have been checking up on whether any British nationals were involved.

'We are not aware of any at the moment but we will continue that checking.'

Asked about the significance of the suspect identities, he said: 'It is too early to speculate about what that means.

'The UK will assist the Malaysian authorities in any way we can with any investigation if it is relevant to do so in any way.'

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said search operations in an area about midway between Malaysia and Vietnam's southern coast were being intensified.

It comes as the Vietnamese air force reported it has spotted two oil slicks, thought to be from the wreckage of the crash.

A Vietnamese government statement said the slicks were spotted off the southern tip of Vietnam.

They were each between six miles and nine miles long, officials said.

The statement said the slicks were consistent with the kinds that would be left by fuel from a crashed jetliner, but it was not clear if they were connected to the missing aircraft.

'Vietnam rescue airplanes saw two oil spills and one smoke column in the area around 150 miles west of Tho Chu island, but we can't confirm it's from that Malaysia plane,' said Pham Quy Tieu, vice minister of transportation.

'We sent two maritime boats and some military boats there to clarify, each boat with about 20 people. The oil spills are about 15km (9.3 miles) long. Those boats will be there in about three to four hours.'

Troubled waters: A fisherman works on his boat near a local naval base at Phu Quoc island, in the waters of southern Vietnam, where a Malaysian Airlines jet was presumed lost

Troubled waters: A fisherman works on his boat near a local naval base at Phu Quoc island, in the waters of southern Vietnam, where a Malaysian Airlines jet was presumed lost

Search by sea: A Vietnam coast guard ship is seen anchored at a local naval base at Phu Quoc island

Search by sea: A Vietnam coast guard ship is seen anchored at a local naval base at Phu Quoc island

Concern: The arrivals board at Beijing Airport listed flight MH370 as being delayed

Concern: The arrivals board at Beijing Airport listed flight MH370 as being delayed

Desperate: Relatives waiting for news have been booked into a hotel at Beijing Airport

Desperate: Relatives waiting for news have been booked into a hotel at Beijing Airport

Malaysian Airlines senior official Dr Hugh Dunleavy, left, speaks to Ignatius Ong, from the airline's crisis management team, in Beijing on Saturday

Malaysian Airlines senior official Dr Hugh Dunleavy, left, speaks to Ignatius Ong, from the airline's crisis management team, in Beijing on Saturday

Hugh Dunleavy, left, and Ignatius Ong, right, of Malaysian Airlines, answer questions at a press conference

Hugh Dunleavy, left, and Ignatius Ong, right, of Malaysian Airlines, answer questions at a press conference

Less than one hour after Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, the plane disappeared from radar.

Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said there was no indication that the pilots sent a distress signal. The fact that there was apparently no call for help suggests that whatever happened to the flight occurred quickly.


'We are doing everything in our power to locate the plane. We are doing everything we can to ensure every possible angle has been addressed'
- Malaysian transport minister Hishamuddin Hussein

'We are doing everything in our power to locate the plane. We are doing everything we can to ensure every possible angle has been addressed,' Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein told reporters near the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

'We are looking for accurate information from the Malaysian military. They are waiting for information from the Vietnamese side,' he said.

Ships in the area have been involved, scouring the vast site for signs of a wreckage.

The South China Sea is a tense region with competing territorial claims that have led to several low-level conflicts, particularly between China and the Philippines.

That antipathy briefly faded Saturday as China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia all sent ships and planes to the region.

Clue in the water: A handout picture provided by Tienphong.vn shows what is believed to be an oil slick stretching a length of about 9 miles in the sea off the Vietnamese coast

Clue in the water: A handout picture provided by Tienphong.vn shows what is believed to be an oil slick stretching a length of about 9 miles in the sea off the Vietnamese coast

Without a trace: This image courtesy of Flightradar24, shows the flight track of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 on March 7, 2014

Without a trace: This image courtesy of Flightradar24, shows the flight track of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 on March 7, 2014

Malaysia had dispatched 15 planes and nine ships to the area. The U.S. Navy was sending a warship and a surveillance plane, and Singapore said it would send a submarine and a plane. China and Vietnam also were sending aircraft to help in the search.

Malaysian Airlines has confirmed the majority of those on board are from Malaysia and China, with three Americans, two Canadians and seven Australians and passengers from France.

Vietnamese state media, quoting a senior naval official, had reported that the Boeing 777-200ER flight had crashed off south Vietnam, but those reports have been denied, with the plane listed as 'missing'.

The Vietnamese Navy confirmed it detected the aircraft's emergency locator signal 153 miles south of Phu Quoc island in the South China sea.

Admiral Ngo Van Phat told the Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre that radar showed the aircraft had crashed into the sea off the southern tip of Vietnam, close to the border with Cambodia.

TIMELINE OF FLIGHT MH307

12.21am (4.21pm GMT): Flight MH307 takes off from Kuala Lumpur airport

1.21am (5.21pm GMT): The flight failed to check in as scheduled while flying between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam

2.40am (6.40pm GMT): The flight loses contact with air traffic controllers

6.30am (10.30pm GMT): The flight was scheduled to land at Beijing

7.54am (11.54pm GMT): The airline issued a statement saying it had not landed and was officially missing

The paper later reported the Admiral qualifying his statement, saying the radar had revealed the presumed crash site.

Malaysian naval vessels saw no immediate sign of wreckage when they reached the maritime area off the country's northeast coast this morning, a senior rescue official said.

Malaysia has sent three maritime enforcement ships and a navy vessel to the area, backed by three helicopters, a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency official said.

'Our aircraft asset spotted an orange speck in the sea where the last signal came from. We sent a vessel to search the area and it was confirmed that it was nothing,' he said.

The signal picked up by the Navy is believed to be the Emergency Locator Transmittor, which can be activated manually by the flight crew or automatically upon impact.

Crying relatives of Chinese passengers on board the plane wept at Beijing airport as it became clear the jet had probably crashed.

An unconfirmed report on a flight tracking website said the aircraft had plunged 650ft and changed course shortly before all contact was lost.

The route would have taken flight MH370, a B777-200 aircraft, across the Malaysian mainland in a north-easterly direction and then across the Gulf of Thailand.

Shock: Distressed relatives wait for news of the Malaysia Airlines plane which was due to land in Beijing. Malaysia's Transport Minister said 14 hours into the massive search and rescue mission, that 'no crash site' has been located

Shock: Distressed relatives wait for news of the Malaysia Airlines plane which was due to land in Beijing. Malaysia's Transport Minister said 14 hours into the massive search and rescue mission, that 'no crash site' has been located

Missing: Flight MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it lost contact over Vietnam

Missing: Flight MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it lost contact over Vietnam

Notice: A message written on a board at Beijing Airport tells relatives the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is delayed

Notice: A message written on a board at Beijing Airport tells relatives the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is delayed

Chinese state media said 24 Chinese artists and family members, who were in Kuala Lumpur for an art exchange program, were aboard. The Sichuan provincial government said Zhang Jinquan, a well-known calligrapher, was on the flight.

Airline graphic

The pilot of the passenger plane is Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a 53-year-old Malaysia who joined the airline in 1981.

His co-pilot was 27-year-old First Officer Fariq Ab. Hamid, also from Malaysia, who joined the airline in 2007. 

If the aircraft has crashed, and all the passengers and crew are killed, it would the deadliest aviation incident since November 2001.

In that incident, 265 people died after an American Airlines Airbus A300 crashed in Belle Harbor, Queens, after leaving JFK Airport in New York. The deaths included five people on the ground.

MAS Operations Control Vice President Fuad Sharuji said: 'We tried to call this aircraft through various means,' adding that it was carrying fuel for 7.5 hours when it disappeared.

Lai Xuan Thanh, director of Vietnam's civil aviation authority, said the plane was over the sea and bound for Vietnamese airspace but air traffic officials in the country were never able to make contact.

The plane 'lost all contact and radar signal one minute before it entered Vietnam's air traffic control,' Lieutenant General Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of the Vietnamese army, said in a statement issued by the government.

More than 10 hours after last contact, officials from several countries were struggling to locate the plane.

All countries in the possible flight path of the missing aircraft were performing a 'communications and radio search', John Andrews, deputy chief of the Philippines' civil aviation agency, said.

Xinhua said China has sent two maritime rescue ships to the South China Sea to help in the search and rescue efforts.

'It couldn't possibly be in the air because it would have run out of oil by now,' Shukor Yusof, an aviation analyst at S&P Capital IQ, said.

'It's either on the ground somewhere, intact, or possibly it has gone down in the water.'

Aviation experts said that if the report of the aircraft suddenly plunging was correct it could be due to a number of factors.

Long wait: A Malaysian man with relatives on the plane arrives at Beijing airport. An unconfirmed report on a flight tracking website said the aircraft had plunged 650ft and changed course shortly before all contact was lost

Long wait: A Malaysian man with relatives on the plane arrives at Beijing airport. An unconfirmed report on a flight tracking website said the aircraft had plunged 650ft and changed course shortly before all contact was lost

Devastating: A woman cries in Beijing airport as she waits to hear information about her family

Devastating: A woman cries in Beijing airport as she waits to hear information about her family

Anxious: A man with family on the missing flight is escorted to the relatives room at Kuala Lumpur airport

Anxious: A man with family on the missing flight is escorted to the relatives room at Kuala Lumpur airport

'CRASH' WOULD BE DEADLIEST IN PLANE'S 19-YEAR HISTORY

If it is confirmed that the plane has crashed, the loss would mark the second fatal accident involving a Boeing 777 in less than a year and by far the worst since the jet entered service in 1995.

It would mark the U.S.-built Boeing 777-200ER airliner's deadliest incident since entering service 19 years ago.

An Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200ER crash-landed in San Francisco in July 2013, killing three passengers and injuring more than 180.

Boeing said it was aware of reports that the Malaysia Airlines plane was missing and was monitoring the situation but had no further comment.

The flight was operating as a China Southern Airlines codeshare.

An official at the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) said the plane had failed to check in as scheduled at 5.21pm GMT while it was flying over the sea between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh city.

These include a catastrophic engine failure; the pilots taking evasive action to avoid another aircraft; or an explosion.

The airline has not said whether the pilots were able to issue a distress call - but if they did not, experts said this could indicate a catastrophy that had occurred without warning.

At Beijing's airport, authorities posted a notice asking relatives and friends of passengers to gather to a hotel about 15km from the airport to wait for further information, and provided a shuttle bus service.

A woman wept on the shuttle bus while saying on a mobile phone: 'They want us to go to the hotel. It cannot be good.'

Periodically, wails could be heard coming from inside the hotel conference room where the relatives were sequestered, and several people emerged in the mid-afternoon, complaining that airline officials were not providing sufficient information.

'We are being treated like dogs!' one man yelled, pushing through a crowd of reporters.

A waiting area for family and friends was also set up at the Kuala Lumpur airport the flight had left from.

Fuad Sharuji, Malaysian Airlines' vice president of operations control, told CNN that the plane was flying at an altitude of 35,000ft and that the pilots had reported no problem with the aircraft.

The Boeing jet lost contact with Malaysian air traffic controllers a little over two hours into its flight.

Reports from China's Xinhua news agency said later that the aircraft was lost in air space controlled by Vietnam and did not enter Chinese airspace or make any contact with Chinese controllers.

'Our team is currently calling the next of kin of passengers and crew,' the airline's chief executive, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, said as the airline issued a statement saying its 'thoughts and prayers' were with all those on board as well as their families.

Waiting room: Family and friends are being directed to a reception area at Kuala Lumpur airport, where the plane left, as the airline gathers details about the missing aircraft

Waiting room: Family and friends are being directed to a reception area at Kuala Lumpur airport, where the plane left, as the airline gathers details about the missing aircraft

Information: A member of staff from Malaysia Airlines is surrounded by reporters at the airport

Information: A member of staff from Malaysia Airlines is surrounded by reporters at the airport

NATIONALITIES OF THE MISSING

China/Taiwan: 152, including an infant

Malaysia: 38

India: 5

Indonesia: 7

Australia: 6

France: 4

U.S.: 3, including two toddlers  

New Zealand: 2

Ukraine: 2

Canada: 2

Russia: 1

Netherlands: 1

Finding planes that disappear over the ocean can be difficult. Airliner 'black boxes' -  the flight data and cockpit voice recorders - are equipped with 'pingers' that emit ultrasonic signals that can be detected underwater.

Under good conditions, the signals can be detected from several hundred miles away, John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said.

If the boxes are trapped inside the wreckage, the sound may not travel as far, he said. If the boxes are in an underwater trench, that also hinders how far the sound can travel. The signals also weaken over time.

Unconfirmed reports said it was believed the missing aircraft was involved in a crash in August 2012 when it damaged the tail of a China Eastern Airlines plane at Shanghai Pudong Airport.

The reports said that in that incident the tip of the wing of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 broke off.

Family room: Women waiting to hear about loved ones on the plane arrive at Kuala Lumpur airport

Family room: Women waiting to hear about loved ones on the plane arrive at Kuala Lumpur airport

Update: Malaysian Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahyain speaks at a press conference on Saturday

Update: Malaysian Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahyain speaks at a press conference on Saturday

Retired American Airlines captain Jim Tilmon told CNN that 'it doesn't sound very good,' as the search continued for the missing jet.

'The route is mostly overland, which means there would be plenty of radars and radios to contact the plane.

'I've been trying to come up with every scenario that I could just to explain this away, but I haven't been very successful.'

Mr Tilmon said the jet was 'about as sophisticated as any commercial airplane could possibly be.'

Expert view: Aviation expert David Learmount said it is extraordinary that the crew aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight, which disappeared yesterday, did not make an emergency call

Expert view: Aviation expert David Learmount said it is extraordinary that the crew aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight, which disappeared yesterday, did not make an emergency call

A leading aviation safety expert has said it is 'extraordinary' that the pilots of a missing Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 239 people did not make a distress call.

The Boeing B777-200 aircraft would have been cruising at about 35,000 feet when it lost contact over the South China Sea, giving the pilots 'plenty of time' to report any technical problems, Flight Global's operations and safety editor David Learmount said.

Mr Learmount said: 'Something happened and the pilots did not tell anyone. Why? It's a good question.

'It's extraordinary the pilots failed to call because they had plenty of time to. Unless there was a bomb on board but there has been no evidence of that.'

Mr Learmount, who is a pilot, drew comparisons with the Air France 447 plane crash over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, which killed 216 passengers and 12 aircrew, including five Britons.

The aircraft crashed when pilots lost control after ice crystals affected sensors used to measure the plane's speed, he said.

Mr Learmount said: 'This is an historical comparison and could be a coincidence.

'Modern aircrafts are beautifully built and incredibly safe.

'If the engines were to fail because of some kind of interruption to the fuel flow, they can glide with no problems whatsoever for about 40 minutes at that height.'

Incident echos tragedy: Mr Learmount said the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH307 echos the Air France crash in 2009, which killed 216 passengers and 12 crew

Incident echos tragedy: Mr Learmount said the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH307 echos the Air France crash in 2009, which killed 216 passengers and 12 crew

Route: An online flight tracker for MH37 ends shortly after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur

Route: An online flight tracker for MH37 ends shortly after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur

Mr Learmount said the time which the Malaysia Airlines plane went missing may be significant.

He said: 'Between midnight and 2am you're not at a mental or physical performance high - you're at the lowest performance standard in the 24-hour cycle.'

ECHOES OF AIR FRANCE CRASH

  • Air France flight 447 crashed over the Atlantic in 2009
  • 216 passengers were killed along with  12 crew members - five Britons were among the dead
  • Aircraft crashed when pilots lost control when ice crystals affected sensors used to measure the plane's speed
  • Investigators took two years to find the Air France plane

The failure to locate the plane so far was not unusual, he added, with investigators taking two years to find the missing Air France 447 plane.

However, Mr Learmount admitted he was 'puzzled' why authorities had not divulged a more accurate location of where the aircraft went missing.

'They may not know precisely but they know pretty accurately,' he said.

The 53-year-old Malaysia Airlines pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, has more than 18,000 flying hours and has been flying for the airline since 1981, the company's chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.

The first officer, 27-year-old Fariq Hamid, has about 2,800 hours of experience and has flown for the airline since 2007.

BOEING 777: ONE OF THE WORLD'S SAFEST JETS

The Boeing 777 flown by Malaysia Airlines that disappeared over the South China Sea is one of the world's most popular - and safest - jets.

The long-range jumbo jet has helped connect cities at the far ends of the globe, with flights as long as 16 hours.

But more impressive is its safety record: The first fatal crash in its 19-year history only came last July when an Asiana Airlines jet landed short of the runway in San Francisco. Three of the 307 people aboard died.

Missing: The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 lost contact with Air Traffic Control over the Pacific with 227 passengers aboard

Missing: The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 lost contact with Air Traffic Control over the Pacific with 227 passengers aboard

Airlines like the plane because it is capable of flying extremely long distances thanks to two giant engines.

Each engine is so massive that a row of at least five coach seats could fit inside it. By having just two engines, the plane burns through less fuel than four-engine jets, like the Boeing 747, which it has essentially replaced.

"It has provided a new standard in both efficiency and safety," said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant with the Teal Group.

"The 777 has enjoyed one of the safest records of any jetliner built."

Besides last year's Asiana crash, the only other serious incident with the 777 came in January 2008 when a British Airways jet landed about 1,000 feet short of the runway at London's Heathrow Airport.

Malaysia Airlines did have an incident in August 2005 with a 777 flying from Perth, Australia, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city.

While flying 38,000 feet above the Indian Ocean, the plane's software incorrectly measured speed and acceleration, causing the plane to suddenly shoot up 3,000 feet.

The pilot disengaged the autopilot and descended and landed safely back in Perth. A software update was quickly made on planes around the world.

Malaysia Airlines has 15 Boeing 777-200ER jets in its fleet of about 100 planes. The first was delivered on April 23, 1997, and the most recent on December 13, 2004, according to Boeing. The 200ER is one of four versions of the 777.

The 777 is capable of flying 7,250 miles non-stop. Its two Rolls-Royce Trent 875 engines each have 74,600lb of thrust, letting the plane cruise at Mach 0.84, or nearly 640 mph.

A new model has a list price of 261.5 million US dollars (£156 million), although airlines usually negotiate discounts.

The 777 was the first twin-engine plane to be immediately certified to fly over the ocean as far as 180 minutes from any emergency landing airport.

Government safety regulators have determined that it could fly for nearly three hours on a single engine in the case of an emergency.

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