A missing Malaysian airliner kept flying after it dropped off controllers’ radar screens, raising new questions about whether foul play was involved, according to people familiar with data gathered in the inquiry.
Aviation specialists investigating last week’s loss of Flight 370 say evidence gathered so far suggests the plane traveled west over Malaysia, possibly continuing for hours, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the probe is active. News reports that the aircraft may have continued flying for “some time” after the last transmission of engine data are inaccurate, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in Kuala Lumpur.
The comments by investigators adds a new note of mystery to the March 8 disappearance of the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane carrying 239 people that vanished while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Data compiled so far show no evidence of a crash near the Malaysian peninsula, the people said. The airline has no information on this, a spokeswoman at Malaysian Air said, declining to be identified.
“I can’t think of a single example of a large airplane completely disappearing without seemingly leaving a trace for this many days,” said Hans Weber, president of Tecop International Inc., a San Diego-based consultant. “It remains a mystery.”
U.S. investigators increasingly suspect the act was criminal, one person said without elaborating.
Radar signals sent from the ground continued to reflect back from the plane after its transponder went dead as the aircraft headed north from Malaysia toward Vietnam, said the people, who weren’t permitted to speak publicly about the probe. After the transponder shut off, making it harder to follow on radar, the plane turned left toward the west instead of continuing on its path.
An automatic system that sends data about the health of the plane’s engines may also have continued to function, indicating the aircraft was being operated intentionally, the people said. That suggests the Boeing Co. 777-200 may have been flown off course with the intent to fly undetected, by the pilots or hijackers.
Malaysia isn’t cutting back on the search, and instead has intensified its efforts, Hishammuddin said.
“Malaysia has nothing to hide,” he said. “We have spared no expense and no effort.”
The 777 had enough fuel to fly the 2,700 miles (4,345 kilometers) to Beijing and reserves to fly to a diversion airport. That meant it was capable of flying at least 2,000 miles after it changed course. The Wall Street Journal reported that the plane stayed in the air for about four hours after reaching its last confirmed location.
The aircraft’s transponder normally sends radio beacons to ground radar stations making it easier to follow and providing other information, such as its identity and altitude. While it’s possible for it to malfunction or be accidentally switched it off, it is highly suspicious for the device to fail at the same time a plane makes an abrupt change of course.
The plane continued to fly west toward the Andaman Sea, only dropping off Malaysian radars as it reached the end of their range, the people said. The information raises as many questions as it answers about the case and was still being assessed by officials, the people said.
Indian Navy and Coast Guard have sent ships and aircraft to aid Malaysia in its search for the missing plane, said a government official, who asked not to be identified as the person wasn’t authorized to speak on the subject. India will search the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand starting today, based on a request by Malaysia, the official said.
Planes and ships from a dozen countries scouring land and sea on both sides of Peninsular Malaysia have yielded few answers on what caused Flight 370 to disappear. Vietnam sent a plane to verify Chinese satellite images that appeared to show three floating objects, only to find nothing there.
The images were the newest that investigators were chasing, including an unexplained radar blip detected in the area of the Malacca Strait, about 2:15 a.m. local time on March 8, or 45 minutes after contact was lost with the jet flying to Beijing through the Gulf of Thailand.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is supporting the Department of Defense to find the missing aircraft, said spokesman Donald Kerr in an e-mailed statement. DoD is following up on all leads on the potential path of the aircraft, and is assisting U.S. Pacific Command in their wide area search for debris fields.
Boeing said it already has investigators on site to assist the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. These teams would probably include 777 structures experts who can quickly identify crucial aircraft components, said John Purvis, a retired accident investigator who headed Boeing’s investigations unit for much of the 1980s and 1990s.
Miles Kotay, a Boeing spokesman, wouldn’t say whether the world’s largest planemaker is reviewing the satellite imagery to determine whether the pieces came from the Malaysian Air jet.
“While we stand ready to assist investigators as needed, we do not comment on specifics,” Kotay said in an e-mail.
Flight 370’s route took it over the Gulf of Thailand, where the plane was approaching Vietnamese airspace when controllers lost contact. Signals from the jet’s transponder, a beacon that helps increase the plane’s visibility on radar screens, also ended then.
The absence of wreckage has kept alive various theories about the plane’s disappearance, from an accident to hijacking to sabotage.
While the Gulf of Thailand initially took primacy in the hunt because of Flight 370’s last known position, Malaysia expanded the search this week to the Malacca Strait. Yesterday, Malaysia sought help from U.S. investigators in interpreting an unexplained radar blip detected over the strait, far from the jet’s route.
“We are devoting all our energies to the task at hand,” Hishammuddin said. “And I want to be very clear: Our focus has been on finding the aircraft. We have not done anything that could jeopardize the search effort.”
With assistance from Chong Pooi Koon and Ranjeetha Pakiam in Kuala Lumpur, Kartikay Mehrotra in New Delhi, Kyunghee Park in Singapore and Julie Johnsson in Chicago. To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at [email protected] To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at [email protected]; Bernard Kohn at [email protected] Michael Shepard.