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WASHINGTON (AP) — Ever since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, a fascinated public has asked: Why can somebody in the cockpit shut of the transponder?
It turns out there are several legitimate reasons why a pilot might want to shut off this key form of communication that allows air traffic controllers to identify and track airplanes.
Authorities believe that Flight 370's transponder was intentionally shut off, delaying search and rescue efforts and helping to conceal the plane's location — a mystery unsolved more than 10 days after the Boeing 777 vanished.
It's rare for a pilot to turn off a transponder during flight, but occasionally there is cause.
— Sometimes a transponder malfunctions, giving out incorrect readings.
— The device could have an electrical short or catch on fire. Pilots would want to shut it down rather than risk a fire spreading to the rest of the cockpit or airplane.
— Pilots used to routinely turn off transponders on the ground at airports so as not to overwhelm air traffic controllers with so many signals in one location. That is increasingly less the case as pilots now use "moving map" displays that take the transponder data and show them the location of other planes on the ground, helping guide them around airports without mishaps.
"As long as there are pilots, they'll be able to switch off systems," said Andrew Thomas, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Transportation Security.
Airplanes have two transponders. There are two knobs in the cockpit — one on the right, the other on the left — that control one or the other. When one transponder is on, the other is normally in standby mode.
To turn off a transponder, a pilot turns a knob with multiple positions and selects the "off" setting. The second transponder doesn't automatically activate if the first one is shut down — a knob would also have to be turned. In this case, it appears one transponder was turned off, and the second not activated.
Ross Aimer, a retired United Airlines pilot and former 777 instructor, said it is possible that one pilot could reach up and turn off the transponder without the other pilot seeing it, say if one was looking away or distracted.
If the plane was in contact with an air traffic controller, the controller would alert the pilots that the transponder signal had been lost. But, Aimer — now head of Aero Consulting Experts — said, if they were not in contact with an air traffic controller, a pilot might miss it if the other shut down the transponder.
In the case of the missing Malaysian plane, even pilots are a bit puzzled by somebody turning off the transponder.
John Gadzinski, a Boeing 737 captain, said that among fellow pilots "there is a raised eyebrow like Spock on 'Star Trek' — you just sit there and go, 'why would anybody do that?'"
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday approved a draft bill for the annexation of Crimea, one of a flurry of steps to formally take over the Black Sea peninsula.
Crimea on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and seek to join Russia. The West and Ukraine described the referendum which was announced two weeks ago as illegitimate.
The United States and the European Union on Monday announced asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the Crimean crisis. President Barack Obama warned that more would come if Russia didn't stop interfering in Ukraine.
Russian troops have been occupying the region for more than two weeks.
The decree signed by Putin and posted on the official government website Tuesday morning is one of the steps which would formalize the annexation of Crimea. Russia, however, still has a room to back off. The treaty to annex Crimea has to be signed by leaders of Russia and Crimea leader and then ratified by the parliament.
Putin is set to address both houses of the parliament at 3 p.m. Moscow time (1100 GMT) in a nationally televised speech where he is widely expected to stake Russia's claim on Crimea.
Crimea had been part of Russia since the 18th century until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Both Russians and Crimea's majority ethnic Russian population see annexation as correcting a historic insult.
Ukraine's turmoil, which began in November with a wave of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych and accelerated after he fled to Russia in late February, has become Europe's most severe security crisis in years.