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Mystery Surrounding Disappearance of MH370 Deepens

It may go down as the most unprecedented disappearance of a commercial jetliner in modern aviation history.

Some five days after a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER disappeared off radar screens while it was at altitude over the South China Sea, enroute from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, there is no sign of the missing plane.

Despite a multi-national search involving 9 aircraft and 24 ships, officials have not been able to pinpoint any signs of debris that would indicate a mid-air catastrophe, Malaysian officials, who are leading the multinational search, are increasingly coming under fire for their handling of the crisis.

Deepening the mystery is that radar logs indicate that the plane may have begun a turnaround, some two hours after it departed Kuala Lumpur. Investigators are also focusing in on two passengers who had managed to board the aircraft using stolen Italian and Austrian passports.

There is embarrassment in Kuala Lumpur that immigration officials did not check the passports  against an Interpol database of lost and stolen travel documents.

The search has now been expanded to include the northern Malaysian peninsula, as well as the Straits of Malacca, which have some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Analysts are beginning to criticize the Malaysian Government for sitting on information that could have accelerated the efforts to find the plane.

Now that the Malaysian military revealed that its radars tracked MH370 turning towards the west, one experienced pilot told Sky News that, with several hours of fuel on board, the jet could have made it as far as the Indian Ocean.

In the past 24 hours, Vietnamese authorities said they have called off their search efforts as evidence emerges that the plane veered off course.

Also of embarrassment to Malaysia Airlines is that an Australian television channel reported that the Malaysian co-pilot of MH370 was photographed in 2011 smoking in the cockpit with invited passengers - a serious violation of regulations.

Passengers checking-in at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Credit: MST

Passengers checking-in at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Credit: MST

One theory, though discounted by some experts, is that the aircraft's tracking beacons had been disengaged and that it was flown to an unknown location. A radar expert told Britain's Sky News Monday that such a feat could be possible.

Indeed on Sunday MAS first believed the flight may have made an emergency landing in Nanming, China.

Even with today's technology, commercial jetliners that are flying 120 miles or more from shore typically do not show on conventional radar and are monitored based on positioned radioed by the crew. Malaysia Airlines said Monday that this 777, as with all its aircraft, was equipped with continuous data monitoring system known as the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which transmits technical data automatically. "Nevertheless there was no distress calls and no information relayed," MAS said.

(However, the manufacturer of the engine, Rolls Royce, said that it had received at least two transmissions from the aircraft after it took off from Kuala Lumpur).

If the crew were threatened, on a modern airliner like the Boeing 777, which has an almost perfect safety record, they have emergency codes they can enter if, say, a hijacker is trying to break into the flight deck.

With no debris spotted, no mayday call made, and no radar or satellite readings so far indicating a mid-air disintegration, many experts are using such terms as "weird" and "bizarre" to describe the disappearance.

It is worth noting that in the disappearance of Air France 447 in 2009, debris (a 12-mile-long oil slick and 23-foot section) was not spotted until 36 hours after the crash into the Atlantic. It wasnt until more than a month later that other major sections were found.

With so little to go on, a Colorado-based satellite imaging company is launching an effort to crowdsource the search, asking the public for help analyzing high-resolution images for any sign of the missing airliner. DigitalGlobe has trained cameras from its five orbiting satellites Saturday on the Gulf of Thailand region where Malaysia flight 370 was last heard from. Anyone can access the website and help in the search.

Meanwhile, China, which had more than 100 nationals on board the jet, turned the heat up on the Malaysian Government to intensify its search.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said:  "We have a responsibility to demand and urge the Malaysian side to step up search efforts, start an investigation as soon as possible and provide relevant information to China correctly and in a timely manner."