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FBI Joins Malaysia Jet Probe as Simulator Data Sought

March 20 (Bloomberg) –- Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon plane may look a lot like the company’s 737, but it’s actually a highly advanced military aircraft that’s equipped to hunt submarines. Now the P-8 has joined the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Here’s a look at the game-changing capabilities of the P-8. (Source: Bloomberg)

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation joined Malaysia’s inquiry into the missing jet as authorities sought to retrieve deleted data on a computer flight simulator belonging to the plane’s pilot.

The FBI’s involvement, disclosed yesterday by the White House, widens the U.S. role in probing Flight 370’s disappearance. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are already working with Malaysian authorities, as is the U.S. military.

“There’s been close cooperation with the Malaysian government,” President Barack Obama said in an interview with a Dallas television station. He said the investigation is a “top priority.”

The search area for the Boeing Co. 777-200ER narrowed in the southern Indian Ocean after an analysis of the plane’s probable fuel reserves. Aircraft from Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. patrolled a zone the size of Italy while the inquiry into the simulator opened a new front in the mystery that began March 8 when Flight 370 vanished with 239 people on board.

Malaysia gave India new coordinates to look for the plane, following which the country will deploy its P-8I long-range aircraft, D.K. Sharma, a spokesman for the Indian Navy, said by phone today. India will search the ocean in a location south of Jakarta, Sharma said.

Simulator Examined

Malaysia has brought in local and international experts to examine the simulator, Hishammuddin said. Some data had been deleted and “forensic work” to retrieve it was under way, he said. The data log was cleared on Feb. 3, according to Khalid Abu Bakar, the country’s police chief.

The homes of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid were searched on March 15 after Prime Minister Najib Razak said the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane was intentionally diverted. It lost contact and disappeared from radar screens less than an hour after it left Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing. Initial inquiries indicated the co-pilot was last heard by air traffic controllers.

“The passengers, the pilots and the crew remain innocent until proven otherwise,” Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said. “For the sake of their families, I ask that we refrain from any unnecessary speculation that might make an already difficult time even harder.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on the status of the investigation into Flight 370 while confirming that the FBI was involved.

Patrols Resuming

“We are finding that the level of cooperation with the Malaysian government is solid,” Carney told reporters. “But I have no update on the course of the investigation. It remains the case that, you know, we are not in the position yet to draw conclusions about what happened.”

Air patrols by the U.S., New Zealand and Australia are resuming today in the southern Indian Ocean, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

An assessment by the NTSB allowed the search to be focused on an area about the half the size of the zone planned earlier, according to John Young, the agency’s general manager of emergency response. The search zone is about 305,000 square kilometers (118,000 square miles).

Fuel Load

The search for the Malaysian jet, which lost contact with air traffic control less than an hour after leaving Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. on March 8 en route to Beijing, is the longest in modern passenger-airline history. The previous record was the 10-day search for a Boeing Co. 737-400 operated by Indonesia’s PT Adam Skyconnection Airlines, which went missing off the coast of that country’s Sulawesi island Jan. 1, 2007.

The Boeing 777 was carrying 49.1 metric tons (54.1 tons) of fuel when it departed Kuala Lumpur, for a total takeoff weight of 223.5 tons, according to Subang Jaya-based Malaysian Air.

Satellite signals emitted periodically from Flight 370 even after other communications were shut down showed the jet operated for almost seven hours after last making contact. That may have taken the plane more than 3,000 miles from its last known location to the limits to the fuel on board, if it remained airborne the whole time.

U.S. investigators are reviewing satellite pings from routine flights in an attempt to determine the accuracy of the estimates of where the jet flew, said a person familiar with the probe who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Accuracy Estimates

A jet carrying global-positioning equipment would know its exact position, and that could be compared with estimates derived from its pings to the Inmarsat Plc satellite, the person said.

The distance from the London-based company’s satellite over the Indian Ocean to Flight 370 must have been calculated using the time it took for radio beams to travel back and forth, Tom Stansell, a consultant who helped develop the GPS system starting in 1960, said in an interview.

The arcs released by the Malaysian government showing where the plane was at 8:11 a.m. on March 8 are probably accurate to within about 100 miles, Tim Farrar, president of Telecom, Media & Finance Associates of Menlo Park, California, said in an interview. The company does satellite and telecommunications consulting.

Much of the area Australia is scouring is within the Roaring Forties, a region between the 40th and 50th degrees of latitude south known for strong winds and wave conditions, according to charts provided by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. That may diminish the chances of debris still being afloat so long after the jet vanished.

To contact the reporters on this story: Angus Whitley in Sydney at awhitley1@bloomberg.net; Manirajan Ramasamy in Kuala Lumpur at rmanirajan@bloomberg.net; David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at anandk@bloomberg.net Ed Dufner, Bernard Kohn

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