March 15 (Bloomberg) -- The weeklong search for the missing Malaysian passenger jet shifted focus to the Indian Ocean and as far away as Kazakhstan as investigators reacted to information indicated the aircraft had been intentionally diverted.
Satellite data showed Malaysian Airline Flight 370 continued on March 8 after last making contact with air traffic controllers less than an hour into its Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said today. India is expanding the hunt in the Bay of Bengal, while Vietnam and Thailand ended their search efforts.
The movements of the plane, which first veered off its course and flew back across the Malay peninsula before disappearing, were “consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Najib said, without calling it a hijacking. India is deploying ships as well as three long-range aircraft to comb through an area almost half the size of France.
“It’s just a vast area of the ocean,” said Paul Hayes, director of aviation security in London at Ascend Worldwide, which collects and analyzes aviation data. “Before, we were looking for a bit of floating wreckage in the Bay of Thailand, and that was going to take some time. Now you’ve got thousands and thousands of miles of ocean. Maybe at some point you might get some wreckage washed up on some remote beach, or maybe it’ll never be found.”
Bangladesh joined the mission to find the wide-body aircraft, a Boeing 777-200 that belongs to the family of the largest twin-aisle airliners. The jet was carrying 239 passengers and crew when it went missing, with the last contact at 8:11 a.m., according to the Malaysian prime minister.
“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.
The search now focuses on two new corridors. The first ranges from Kazakhstan to northern Thailand and the second from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean. Kazakhstan hasn’t been approached for help in the mission, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhanbolat Usenov said. A trajectory into Kazakhstan would force the airliner to fly through either Indian or Chinese air space, or via Iran, provided it had enough fuel.
“I can’t believe a plane could fly into Indian airspace undetected,” said Hays. “I don’t know what standard procedures there are for the military in these countries but one assumes they have defense systems and procedures for what to do if an unidentified aircraft is approaching. India is a huge landmass.”
Najib was briefed on the new data this morning, which showed with a “great degree of certainty” that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, which sends messages to the ground, was turned off just before the plane passed the east coast of Malaysia, he said. When the jet reached the area where Malaysian air traffic control passes to Vietnam, the transponder was idled, he said.
The new data also confirmed earlier indications from military radars that the plane turned back across the Malaysian peninsula before changing direction again and heading northwest, he said. The information also opened the possibility that the plane then headed south.
Investigators narrowed the jetliner’s possible routes by mapping hours of satellite contacts that continued after Acars and other systems were shut down, according to three people familiar with the work.
The pulses 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.
Transmission data analyzed by U.S. investigators showed that the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. jet may have flown to a position about 1,000 miles west of Perth, Australia, according to a person familiar with the probe who spoke on condition of not being named because of the sensitivity of the information.
The Australian Defense Ministry is aware of the information and has passed it to their Malaysian counterparts, spokesman Mark Dodd said. The Australian Defence Force already has two Lockheed P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft helping the search mission west of the Malaysian peninsula and would offer further help to the Malaysian authorities if requested.
“It’s their show,” Dodd said.
Beyond an expanding search area, the investigation has also honed in on the role of the two men in the cockpit, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and Fariq Abdul Hamid, the first officer. Fariq, 27, joined the airline in 2007, while Captain Zaharie had worked at the carrier since 1981 and logged 18,365 flying hours.
The pilot displaying a deep passion for the Boeing jetliner that included construction of his own flight simulator using a computer program. Malaysia’s acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that while police have not searched Shah’s house so far, they would do so if needed.
“The Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” the prime minister said today.
More than a week after the plane disappeared, authorities are still struggling to unlock the mystery of how the jet vanished without a trace. Locating a plane in a search area that may run as many as 3,000 miles north and south of Malaysia presents new challenges. India said it’s looking in an field that spans 250,000 square kilometers (96,500 square miles).
Expanding the search into the Indian Ocean, a body of water that’s the third-largest 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 Andaman Sea has an average depth of about 1,000 meters, far greater than the Gulf of Thailand, and the seabed drops off dramatically to the west. There, a series of trenches marks the geologically volatile boundary between the Eurasian the Indo-Australia continental plates. Beyond lie the depths of the Indian Ocean’s abyssal plane.
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 relevant authorities.
“Given the nature of the situation and its extreme sensitivity, it was critical that the raw satellite signals were verified and analysed 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.”
Malaysia has shared information in real time with the authorities of other countries “who have the necessary experience to interpret the data,” he said. “We have put our national security second to the search for the missing plane.”
Initially the search focused along the plane’s intended route in the South China Sea, until the military radar data indicated that Flight 370 likely turned around and headed past 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.”