Officials: Malaysian plane may have flown long after last contact
It’s a mystery that authorities still haven’t been able to solve: Where is Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?
There were still more questions than answers Thursday as U.S. officials said investigators might start combing the Indian Ocean in their search for the missing aircraft.
Why would authorities expand their search rather than narrowing it?
New information, U.S. officials told CNN, indicates the missing airplane could have flown for several hours beyond the last transponder reading.
Malaysian authorities believe they have several “pings” of engine data from the airliner’s service data system, known as ACARS, transmitted to satellites in the four to five hours after the last transponder signal, suggesting the plane is believed to have flown into the Indian Ocean, a senior U.S. official told CNN. That information combined with known radar data and knowledge of fuel range leads officials to believe the plane may have made it to the Indian Ocean.
That possibility is the latest twist in a case that’s baffled investigators and grabbed global attention for days. Information about the missing flight has been hard to come by, and numerous leads have been revealed by some officials only to be debunked by others hours later.
There are conflicting reports about this latest lead as well.
Earlier Thursday the Malaysian government denied a Wall Street Journal report that the plane was transmitting data after the last transponder signal.
A senior aviation source with detailed knowledge of the matter also told CNN’s Richard Quest on Thursday that there was no technical data suggesting the airplane continued flying for four hours, and said specifically that the Wall Street Journal account was wrong.
But the American officials said Thursday afternoon this is information that is being actively pursued in the plane investigation. The Malaysians have not ascertained without a doubt the data is from the missing flight, leaving open the possibility it is a reading from another flight that was nearby, according to the senior US official.
“It appears the plane was flying most of that time,” the senior U.S. official said. The “indication” that the plane kept flying is not based on U.S. government information but rather based on radar readings and plane data.
There is reason to believe the plane flew for four hours, the officials said, but there is no specific indication where the plane actually is.
This new information has now led to a decision to move the USS Kidd into the Indian Ocean in the coming hours to begin searching that area, the official said.
The official said multiple bursts of data were received indicating the plane was flying over the Indian Ocean.
But there’s another confusing twist. An emergency beacon that would have sent data if the plane was about to impact the ocean apparently did not go off, the official said, suggesting perhaps the plane was still likely in some stable flight pattern when it disappeared.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that many countries are partnering in the search and “following leads where we find them.”
Carney told reporters that “some new information that’s not necessarily conclusive” could lead to “reallocating some assets” toward the Indian Ocean.
“We are looking at information, pursuing possible leads, working within the investigation being led by the Malaysian government, and it is my understanding that one possible piece of information or collection of pieces of information has led to the possibility that a new search area may be opened,” Carney said.
Engine data controversy
The report from The Wall Street Journal said U.S. aviation investigators and national security officials were basing their belief that the missing plane kept flying on data automatically transmitted to the ground from the passenger jet’s engines.
The account has raised questions among some U.S. officials about whether the plane had been steered off course “with the intention of using it later for another purpose,” the newspaper reported, citing a “person familiar with the matter.”
The newspaper said it was unclear whether the aircraft had landed somewhere or had crashed.
Malaysia’s acting Transportation Minister Hishammuddin Hussein rejected the Wall Street Journal report at a news conference Thursday, reiterating that the plane sent its last transmissions at 1:07 a.m. Saturday.
The Wall Street Journal report said the plane’s engines have an on-board monitoring system supplied by their manufacturer, Rolls-Royce PLC. The system “periodically sends bursts of data about engine health, operations and aircraft movements to facilities on the ground,” the newspaper said.
Malaysia Airlines sends its engine data live to Rolls-Royce for analysis, the report said, and that data is now being analyzed to figure out the flight path of the missing plane after contact was lost with its transponder, a radio transmitter in the cockpit that communicates with ground radar.
But Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said that Rolls-Royce and Boeing have reported that they didn’t receive transmissions of any kind after 1:07 a.m. Saturday. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane shortly afterward, around 1:30 a.m.
Erin Atan, a spokeswoman for Rolls-Royce in Asia, declined to comment on the matter, telling CNN it was “an official air accident investigation.”
Authorities have not ruled out the possibility the plane continued to fly, however. And given the lack of evidence, all options remain on the table.
The report threatened to open the door to a fresh round of theories about what has become of the plane, which vanished while flying over Southeast Asia on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Four more hours in the air could have put the plane many hundreds of miles beyond the area currently being searched.
But one aviation industry observer expressed skepticism about the report even before the denials by officials.
“I find this very, very difficult to believe,” Tom Ballantyne, chief correspondent for the magazine Orient Aviation, told CNN. “That this aircraft could have flown on for four hours after it disappeared and not have been picked up by someone’s radar and not have been seen by anyone, it’s almost unbelievable.”
Search getting harder
The news came after Vietnamese and Chinese search crews found nothing where Chinese satellite photographs released Wednesday showed large floating objects in the South China Sea.
The spot is between Malaysia and Vietnam and not far from the plane’s expected flight path.
China’s State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense described the images as showing “a suspected crash site.”
But Chinese authorities later said the release of the satellite images was a mistake and that they didn’t show any debris relating to the plane, Hishammuddin said.
The mystery over the fate of the passenger jet, a Boeing 777-200, and the 239 people it was carrying has so far left government officials and aviation experts flummoxed.
“With every passing day the task becomes more difficult,” Hishammuddin said.
Searchers have already been combing a vast area of sea and land for traces of the plane. But so far, with the search well into its sixth day, their efforts have been fruitless.
Malaysian officials say they are still trying to determine if a radar blip detected heading west soon after the plane lost contact was in fact the missing jet.
If it was, the plane would have been hundreds of miles off its original flight path and headed in the wrong direction. Malaysian officials say they have asked U.S. experts to help them analyze the radar data.
Meanwhile, India is joining the multinational search, dispatching two of its naval ships off the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, a military spokesman told CNN.
Last known words
Also on Thursday, a Malaysian aviation official told CNN that the last known words from the flight crew of the missing plane were “All right, good night.”
Malaysian civil aviation officer Zulazri Mohd Ahnuar said he couldn’t confirm which member of the flight crew sent the message, which was transmitted from the plane back to Malaysian flight controllers as the aircraft transferred into Vietnamese airspace early Saturday.
For the families of those on board the missing plane, the wait for news is torturous.
Danica Weeks is trying to keep it together for her two young sons, though the possibility of life without husband Paul, who was on the plane, is sometimes overwhelming. She’s clinging to hope even though, as Weeks told CNN’s Piers Morgan, it’s “not looking good.”
“Every day, it just seems like it’s an eternity, it’s an absolute eternity,” Weeks said from Australia. “We can only go minute by minute … and hope something comes soon.”
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