The weeklong search for a missing passenger jet shifted toward the Indian Ocean as Malaysia’s prime minister agreed with investigators that the aircraft was intentionally diverted.
Satellite transmissions that weren’t turned off along with other systems showed Malaysian Airline Flight 370 operated for almost seven hours after last making contact with air traffic controllers on March 8, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said yesterday. That may have taken the Boeing Co. 777-200 near the limits of its fuel load if it was airborne the whole period.
The movements of the plane, which veered off its Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing course and flew back across the Malaysian peninsula before disappearing, were “consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Najib said.
“In view of this latest development, the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” he said.
Police searched the home of Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, the captain of the flight, shortly after Najib spoke, Reuters reported.
Satellite transmission data analyzed by U.S. investigators showed that the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. jetliner’s most likely last-known position was in a zone about 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) west of Perth, Australia, said two people in the U.S. government who are familiar with the readings. Najib was told that is the most promising lead on locating the plane, one of the people said.
“We’ve had no additional requests from the Malaysian authorities,” Rebecca Horton, a spokeswoman for Australian Defence Minister David Johnston, said today by phone.
Asked whether Australia had picked up any signals consistent with the aircraft on its Jindalee Operational Radar Network, which covers large swathes of the southern Indian Ocean, Leonie Kolmar, a spokeswoman for the Australian Defence Department, said the department “won’t be providing comment” on the military surveillance system.
It’s hard to see how a passenger aircraft could get through the radar undetected, said Clive Williams, a former military intelligence officer and visiting professor at Australian National University.
“You would think anything like a 777 would get picked up for sure,” he said. “Like with any system, you get aberrations. It’s not 100 percent accurate.”
India suspended its search operations further to the north and is waiting to receive new coordinates from Malaysia, Indian Navy spokesman Harmit Singh said.
Expanding the search into the Indian Ocean, the third-largest body of water in the world after the Pacific and Atlantic, greatly increases the complexity of the search while potentially diminishing the chances of finding the plane.
The southern Indian Ocean includes some of the world’s most forbidding underwater areas, said Dave Gallo, director of special projects for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, in an interview. Gallo helped lead the search for Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 in 2 1/2 miles of water and wasn’t found for almost two years.
“The further south you come from Malaysia, the more complicated, deeper and rugged the terrain gets,” Gallo said. “We could be talking about 3 miles, 4 miles, easily, of depth. Possibly deeper than Air France 447.”
A possible if less likely track goes toward Kazakhstan from northern Thailand, which would force the airliner to fly through Chinese and possibly Indian air space.
Investigators largely discount the northern track theory because the nations along that route have robust air-defense radar systems, and no evidence has turned up that the rogue plane flew into that airspace, according to a person familiar with the probe who spoke on condition of not being named because of the sensitivity of the information.
Kazakhstan hasn’t been approached for help in the mission, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhanbolat Usenov said.
“I can’t believe a plane could fly into Indian airspace undetected,” said Paul Hayes, director of aviation security in London at Ascend Worldwide, which collects and analyzes aviation data.
The jet was carrying 239 passengers and crew when it went missing, with the last satellite contact at 8:11 a.m., according to the Malaysian prime minister. Malaysian officials previously said the plane was last tracked by its transponder, a device that helps radar find its location more precisely, at 1:30 a.m.
“Clearly, the search for MH370 has entered a new phase,” the prime minister said at a briefing in Kuala Lumpur. While investigators were unable to plot the “precise location” of the plane, Najib said Malaysia was calling off the search in the South China Sea along the plane’s intended flight path.
Najib was briefed on the new data by investigators from two U.S. agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. It showed with a “great degree of certainty” that its system known as Acars, which sends data and text messages to and from the ground, was turned off just before the plane passed Malaysia’s east coast, he said.
A short time later, when the jet reached the area where air traffic control passes from Malaysia to Vietnam, its transponder was also disabled, he said. Without a transponder, radar can’t identify a plane and has difficulty locating it precisely.
The pilot also commanded the plane’s flight-management system to make a turn to the west. That turn was reported to the airline by some of the final data sent by the Acars system, the person familiar with the investigation said.
Disabling Acars transmissions is a multi-step process that can require even an experienced aviator to consult flight manuals, said Kenneth Musser, a retired Delta Air Lines Inc. 777 pilot who later flew and helped train crews at Asiana Airlines Inc.
That move, combined with the disabling of Flight 370’s transponder, indicates intervention by “someone who knows the system on the airplane,” said Bill Waldock, professor of safety science who teaches accident investigations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.
“That has to be the crew or someone who’s intimately familiar with how a 777 operates,” Waldock said.
Military radars, which don’t rely as much on transponders, tracked the plane as it turned back across the Malaysian peninsula before changing direction again and heading northwest, the prime minister said.
Investigators narrowed the jetliner’s possible routes by mapping once-an-hour contacts with a satellite that continued after Acars and other systems were shut down, according to three people familiar with the work.
The pings provide no data about the plane’s speed, location or altitude. Still, they allow calculations of an arc along the earth’s surface where the plane was each time it communicated with the satellite.
The two routes said to be possibilities are along one arc.
Australia’s radar network includes a long-range system capable of detecting air targets as small as the BAE Systems Hawk, a single-engine, two-seater jet. A base station in Laverton, Western Australia state has a range of about 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) covering most of the ocean south of Java and west from Perth, according to the Defense Ministry’s website.
Beyond an expanding search area, the investigation has also honed in on the role of the two men in the cockpit, Zaharie and Fariq Abdul Hamid, the first officer. Fariq, 27, joined the airline in 2007, while Zaharie had worked at the carrier since 1981 and logged 18,365 flying hours.
Zaharie displayed a deep passion for the Boeing jetliner that included construction of his own flight simulator using a computer program, according to an online post on a community of simulator enthusiasts.
Najib defended Malaysia’s handling of the search after a week of false leads and at times contradictory communication from authorities that has prompted criticism from China, where most of the passengers are from.
“We understand the desperate need for information on behalf of the families and those watching around the world,” he said. “But we have a responsibility to the investigation and the families to only release information that has been corroborated. And our primary motivation has always been to find the plane.”
The airline said in a release that publication of some information was delayed in the past week because the carrier had to share all available data points with authorities.
“Given the nature of the situation and its extreme sensitivity, it was critical that the raw satellite signals were verified and analyzed by the relevant authorities so that their significance could be properly understood,” the company said. “This naturally took some time, during which we were unable to publicly confirm their existence.”
Initially the search focused along the plane’s intended route in the South China Sea, until the military radar data indicated that Flight 370 turned around and flew over Malaysia and into the Malacca Strait. Malaysia extended the search west as far as the Andaman Sea, the prime minister said.
“We have conducted search operations over land, in the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean,” Najib said. “At every stage, we acted on the basis of verified information, and we followed every credible lead. Sometimes these leads have led nowhere.”