Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370: Russian Jets In Baltic May Hold Clue To How Flight 370 Vanished

Jonathan Vankin

Could there be a connection between the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and the surge in Russian military jets provoking NATO defenses in the Baltic region and elsewhere in the world this year? The mysterious and dangerous behavior of the Russian aircraft may provide a clue to how the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 was able to fly for seven hours, avoiding detection by anyone on the ground, according to one aviation expert.

This year has seen a post-Cold War record number of Russian jets and other Russian military aircraft buzz and even breach NATO airspace in the Baltics as well as off the coastline of North America and even Japan.

The surge has alarmed not only NATO due to the possible military threat from the Russian aircraft, but civilian authorities as well. The Russian jets most often fly without operating transponders — devices installed on all commercial and military airplanes allowing the aircraft to be easily spotted and recognized from the ground.

A plane with its transponder turned off becomes much more difficult for ground controllers to see coming, and as a result, poses an increased risk of collision with other aircraft.

Last Friday, Swedish officials protested that a Russian spy jet came perilously close to colliding with the commercial SAS Flight SK1755, which had only just taken off from Copenhagen, Denmark, on its way to Poland. Sweden's defense minister blamed the Russian plane for flying without a transponder.

"This is inappropriate," Peter Hultqvist said. "It's outright dangerous when you turn off the transponder."

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 mysteriously switched off its transponder when it vanished less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on its way to Beijing. The lack of a transponder was one way the plane remained effectively invisible as it flew onward for another seven hours to what investigators believe was its final crash site in the Indian Ocean, about 1,200 miles off the western coast of Australia.

But the lack of a transponder signal was not the only reason the Russian jet went undetected until the last minute — and the same may be true for Flight 370, according to independent investigator and aviation journalist Jeff Wise.

Wise notes that the Russian jet last week was flying on a route that took it along a boundary between two Flight Information Regions, or FIRs. A FIR is the territory in which air traffic controllers of one country have jurisdiction, and which controllers in neighboring countries ignore.

But the aerial borderlines between one FIR and another are often blind spots in the skies, where the air traffic controllers in two countries each assume the other has a plane in its sights. The result can often be that the plane flies unwatched.

The Russian jet last week may have been deliberately flying along FIR boundaries to test how effectively it could avoid NATO detection using that method, Wise wrote on his blog.

When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 shut off all communications on March 8, it was flying in exactly such a boundary area between Malaysia and Thailand, being watched in the sky by no one.

Flight MH370 continued to fly along FIR boundaries for much of the remainder of its rogue flight, according to the route that investigators believe the plane took. If indeed the Malaysia Airlines plane was commandeered by high-tech hijackers, it may have been employing the same technique now employed by the Russian jets, and that possibility could provide a clue as to how the plane was stolen.