U.S. investigators suspect that the missing Malaysia Airlines flight may have kept flying for four hours after it mysteriously vanished with 239 people aboard, raising fears that the aircraft could have been hijacked.
The Wall Street Journal
revealed Thursday that aviation experts and national security officials now believe that the plane flew for a total of five hours based on data automatically downloaded from the Boeing 777 and sent back to the ground as part of a routine monitoring program.
But Malaysian authorities said there was no evidence that the jet flew further after losing contact with air traffic controllers and continued to transmit technical data.
"Those reports are inaccurate," Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference. "As far as both Rolls-Royce and Boeing are concerned, those reports are inaccurate. The last (data) transmission from the aircraft was at 01:07 a.m.(local time) which indicated that everything was normal."
Six days ago, Flight 370 disappeared from air-traffic control radar without a trace one hour into its trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, China, resulting in a massive international search for a possible wreckage.
In the latest in a series of false leads in the hunt, search planes were sent Thursday to search an area off the southern tip of Vietnam where Chinese satellite images published on a Chinese government website reportedly showed three suspected floating objects.
They saw only ocean.
"There is nothing. We went there, there is nothing," said Hussein.
Compounding the frustration, he later said the Chinese Embassy had notified the government that the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
The plane left Kuala Lumpur and was flying northeast across the Gulf of Thailand and into the South China Sea when it dropped off civilian radar without any indication it was having any technical problems.
The Journal also reported that U.S. counter-terrorism teams are now investigating the theory that the plane was diverted by the pilot or hijackers to an “undisclosed location” after turning off the transponders to avoid radar detection.
A total flight time of five hours means that the plane could have remained airborne for another 2,200 nautical miles based on the jetliner’s cruising speed, putting the border of Pakistan and the Arabian Sea within reach.
U.S. national security officials said although there is no proof that it’s an act of terrorism, they have not yet ruled out the possibility.
The Journal reported that investigators are actively probing the theory that the aircraft was diverted or hijacked "with the intention of using it later for another purpose."
But investigators are still unsure whether the plane crashed due to pilot error or a catastrophic incident such as an aircraft malfunction or a terror bomb explosion.
The fact that the data from the Rolls-Royce engines shows the plane could have stayed in the air for another four hours has compounded the mystery.
“We continue to monitor the situation and to offer Malaysia Airlines our support," a Rolls-Royce representative said Wednesday to the Journal. "The disappearance is officially now an accident and all information about this is strictly handled by investigators."
Hishammuddin, though, reiterated that both Rolls Royce and Boeing said the last engine data was received at 1:07 a.m., around 23 minutes before the plane's transponders, which identify it to commercial radar and nearby planes, stopped working.
But asked if it were possible that the plane kept flying for several hours, Hishammuddin said: "Of course, we can't rule anything out. This is why we have extended the search. We are expanding our search into the Andaman Sea." The sea, part of the Indian Ocean, is northwest of the Malay Peninsula.
He said Malaysia was asking for radar data from India and other neighboring countries to see if they can trace it flying northwest. India plans to imminently deploy airplanes and ships in the southern section of the sea, a senior Indian official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
More than two-thirds of those on board the plane were from China, which has shown impatience with the absence of any results. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told reporters in Beijing on Thursday that it he would like to see better coordination among countries involved in the search.
The passengers' "families and friends are burning with anxiety, the Chinese government and Chinese people are all deeply concerned about their safety," he said at the close of the annual session of the country's legislature. "As long as there is a glimmer of hope we will not stop searching for the plane."
He said China had deployed eight ships and was using 10 satellites to search for the plane.
The stunning new disclosures came to light as it was also revealed that Malaysian police have made inquiries at the home of one of the two pilots. Malaysia Airlines declined to give further information about the visit.
Ten countries, including Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan, are taking part in the search for possible wreckage along with 56 ships, 37 planes and 10 helicopters.
The New York Times
reported that Malaysian authorities revealed Wednesday that military radar had picked up signals from what appeared to be the missing aircraft flying on a westerly course sharply off its intended flight path to Beijing.
Experts say a massive failure knocking out its electrical systems, while unlikely, could explain why its transponders, which identify it to civilian radar systems and other nearby planes, were not working. Another possibility is that the pilot, or a passenger, likely one with some technical knowledge, switched off the transponders in the hope of flying undetected.
The jet had enough fuel to reach deep into the Indian Ocean.
Malaysia's air force chief said Wednesday that an unidentified object appeared on military radar records about 200 miles northwest of Penang, Malaysia, and experts are analyzing the data in an attempt to determine whether the blip is the missing plane.
Malaysia has received some criticism for its handling of the search, in part because it took several days to fully explain why it couldn't state for sure whether the plane had turned back.
Officials say they are not hiding anything and are searching areas where the plane is most likely to be, while attempting to establish its actual location.
"There is no real precedent for a situation like this. The plane just vanished," Hishammuddin said.
Experts say that if the plane crashed into the ocean then some debris should be floating on the surface even if most of the jet is submerged. Past experience shows that finding the wreckage can take weeks or even longer, especially if the location of the plane is in doubt.
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