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, which was disclosed today by the White House, widens the U.S. role in probing Flight 370’s disappearance on March 8. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are already working with Malaysian authorities, as is the U.S. military.
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.
“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.”
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, Khalid Abu Bakar, the country’s police chief, said today.
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 on March 8. It lost contact and disappeared from radar screens less than an hour after it left Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing. Initial inquiries indicated the copilot was last heard by air traffic controllers.
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.
“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.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier today that the FBI is in regular consultations with Malaysian officials and “we will make available whatever resources that we have.”
Air patrols by the U.S., New Zealand and Australia will resume tomorrow 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 yesterday, 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).
A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft, which made the first sortie to the area yesterday, covered about 65,000 square kilometers under good search conditions without seeing any signs of debris, Young said.
“We still have grave fears for anyone that might have managed to escape the aircraft in the southern ocean,” he said in a video posted on the agency’s website. “It remains a big area.”
Another Australian Orion was being added to the search today alongside an Orion variant operated by the New Zealand Air Force and a U.S. P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane, for a total of four aircraft, Young said.
The U.S. P-8 will make one daily flight for three days followed by a maintenance day, according to the Navy. It’s the U.S.’s top maritime-search plane, capable of flying for eight to nine hours at altitudes of 5,000 feet.
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.
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.
Investigators are combing through data after the plane was deliberately steered off its course and disappeared from radar.
The jet made its last satellite contact at 8:11 a.m. on March 8, according to the prime minister. Malaysian officials, who have said they can’t rule out hijacking or sabotage, are also exploring the possibility of a pilot suicide.
The plane’s transponder beacon, which helps radar locate aircraft more precisely, and a text-to-ground messaging system were shut before Flight 370 turned off its course.
Satellite pings that weren’t turned off showed Flight 370 operated for almost seven hours after last making contact, Najib has said. That may have taken the plane more than 3,000 miles from where it was last tracked and pushed it to the limits of its fuel load, if it was airborne the whole period.
Malaysia has received some radar data, according to Hishammuddin, the transport chief, without elaborating on whom it’s from and how it could affect the search.
Malaysia is assembling a team to send to Beijing to give briefings and updates to the families of the plane’s passengers, he said. Of the 239 people aboard the flight, 154 were from mainland China.