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The tripwire on Flight 370

The fate of Flight MH370 could have been decided in three minutes.

The Malaysians changed more than the clock when they backtracked Monday from their original statement that the last voice contact from the airplane (“All right, good night”) was received at 1:30 a.m., putting it instead at 1:19 a.m.

The need for an absolutely accurate timeline of the Boeing 777’s flight path has always been essential to investigators. It’s the first thing that they request and normally would be instantly retrievable from air traffic control radars and transmissions between the airplane and the ground. It has been severely lacking in this case.

The timeline has big implications for those trying to understand not just the correct sequence of events but what may lay behind them. Critically, it would mean that with the transponder turned off at 1:22 a.m.—three minutes after the final words from the cockpit, the number of suspects grows suddenly larger.

The transponder is really the tripwire for whatever began to unfold on that jet. It identifies the airplane to traffic controllers and confirms its position. As long as it appeared that the transponder was de-activated before the final voice report, it left open the possibility that the pilots lied to air traffic control and were themselves already embarked upon a pre-planned series of actions that would allow the flight to vanish (however bizarre that scenario seemed).

So if the pilots were not covering up a plot, what happened? Was Act One of a skyjacking, and if so, what was Act Two?

The interrogation of the skyjacking theory would start with the choice of airport, and the choice of the flight. Investigators would consider the political context, whether there was any known motivation for taking captive a particular group of passengers and then making political demands in return for their release.

The classic case of this was, of course, in 1976 when four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a French Airbus flying from Israel to France and demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The airplane landed at Entebbe, Uganda, and 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages were taken. The episode ended with a dramatic Israeli raid at the airport to free the hostages.

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