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Malaysia Expands Search for Missing Jet After Week-Long Hunt

March 14 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysia is expanding the search for a missing passenger jet further east into the South China Sea and farther west into the Indian Ocean after a multination week-long search turned up few clues on the fate of Flight 370.

“A normal investigation becomes narrower with time, as new information focuses the search,” Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in Kuala Lumpur today. “But this is not a normal investigation. In this case, the information we have forces us to look further and further afield.”

The search has shifted westward since aviation investigators compiled signs the Boeing Co. 777-200 veered off its route to Beijing and turned back over Malaysia, beyond the limits of the country’s radar, according to two people who asked not to be identified because the probe is ongoing. Indian forces today expanded the search for the missing Malaysian airliner to the Bay of Bengal after evidence mounted the plane with 239 people on board may have flown long after controllers lost contact with it a week ago.

A satellite transmitter on the plane was active for about five hours, indicating the plane was operational after its transponder shut down less than an hour after takeoff, said three U.S. government officials.

Mystery

Investigators are studying four or five scenarios, including an explosion, intentional acts and actions performed under duress, Hishammuddin said. The possibility of pilot and crew involvement was also being explored, he said.

Experts from the U.K. and Rolls-Royce Plc have said they are studying the possibility of satellite communication with the aircraft and will share their findings with Malaysia, Civil Aviation Chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said today.

An Indian aircraft today combed an area west of the Andaman islands, hundreds of miles off the intended flight path of the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. jet that disappeared March 8. A plane from New Zealand is scouring areas to the northwest of Malaysia, said Air Vice-Marshal Kevin Short.

“It’s very much a mystery,” said Short. “They are picking up pretty small objects, and none of it has been related to the missing aircraft.”

The information adds to the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the plane. With no evidence of a mechanical failure or pilot error, U.S. investigators are treating the disappearance as a case of air piracy, though it remains unclear by whom, one person said.

Automated Signals

The 777 can cruise at 500 miles (805 kilometers) an hour or more, meaning it may have flown for as far as 2,500 miles beyond its last point of contact if it was intact and had enough fuel.

The satellite communications came from an onboard monitoring system that, if fully activated, can send data about how the plane’s equipment is working to Boeing, according to the person familiar with the equipment.

The data doesn’t necessarily indicate the jet was flying the whole time. It may be possible for the system to operate if the 777 was on the ground, the person said. It probably can’t operate following a crash, especially on the water where components would likely sink, the person said.

While Malaysian Air never subscribed, meaning the system didn’t gather detailed information about the flight, it was in an idle position of sorts and periodically sent a pulse to a satellite.

Satellite

Inmarsat Plc, the London-based satellite operator, picked up “routine, automated signals” from Flight 370, according to a statement e-mailed by Jonathan Sinnatt, a spokesman. He declined to elaborate.

Inmarsat shared its information with SITA, the main carrier in that region for land- and satellite-based message traffic between aircraft and ground personnel. SITA in turn shared the data with Malaysian Airlines, he said.

Radar signals sent from the ground continued to reflect back from Flight 370 after its transponder went dead as the aircraft headed north from Malaysia toward Vietnam, said the people. After the transponder shut off, making the 777 harder to follow on radar, the plane turned left toward the west instead of continuing on its path.

Radar Blip

Indonesia had no military radar reports of objects passing through its territory without identification on March 8, Hadi Tjahjanto, a spokesman for the Indonesian air force, said today. Meanwhile, Azharuddin said the missing aircraft wasn’t carrying dangerous goods.

The search by the Indian navy and coast guard is on the opposite side of Malaysia from the plane’s intended path to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. India was initially searching waters just north of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. The areas of search are being given by Malaysia, said Harmit Singh, a navy spokesman.

U.S. investigators have been studying a radar blip detected hundreds of miles west of the plane’s intended route, in the area of the Malacca Strait, about 2:15 a.m. local time March 8. That was 45 minutes after contact was lost with the jet flying to Beijing through the Gulf of Thailand.

The aircraft’s transponder normally sends signals to ground radar stations making it easier to follow and providing other information, such as its identity and altitude. While it’s possible for the unit to malfunction or be accidentally switched off, it is highly suspicious for the device to fail at the same time a plane makes an abrupt change of course.

U.S. Navy

Hishammuddin said 57 ships and 48 aircraft are searching for Flight 370.

South Korea is readying planes to help search for the missing jet, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok says at a briefing today.

The U.S. Navy is moving the destroyer USS Kidd from the Gulf of Thailand to the Strait of Malacca to help in the search, Commander William Marks, a spokesman for the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said in an e-mail.

It also will move a P-8A Poseidon aircraft into the area tomorrow to rotate with a P-3C Orion craft that has been involved in the search, he said. The P-3C is still in the Gulf of Thailand area, according to Pool, the Pentagon spokesman.

Boeing said it already has investigators on site to assist the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. These teams would probably include 777 structures experts who can quickly identify crucial aircraft components, said John Purvis, a retired accident investigator who headed Boeing’s investigations unit for much of the 1980s and 1990s.

“We want nothing more than to find the plane as quickly as possible,” Hishammuddin said. “But the circumstances have forced us to widen our search.”

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