Evidence that flight MH370 flew on for another four hours after vanishing early Saturday morning came from data shared by Malaysian authorities, not from engine maker Rolls-Royce, Washington Post reported today.
As a result of unspecified “new information,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said authorities searching for the Boeing 777-200ER may expand the hunt into the Indian Ocean, which extends hundreds of kilometres further west.
Obama administration officials later said the new information was that the plane’s engines remained running for approximately four hours after it vanished from radar early Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 people on board.
One senior administration official said the data showing the plane engines running hours after contact was lost came from the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, a way that planes maintain contact with ground stations through radio or satellite signals.
The official said Malaysian authorities shared the flight data with the administration.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that US investigators suspect that the engines kept running for up to four more hours after the plane reached its last known location. The paper later corrected its report to say that this belief was based on satellite data, not signals from monitoring systems embedded in the plane’s Rolls-Royce engines. Putrajaya denied the initial report.
The developments came as the Malaysian government acknowledged that it has made little progress in solving the mystery of the vanished plane.
The US officials said they did not know what direction the jet flew whether it simply circled during the approximately four hours, or whether it was airborne at all. But that stretch of additional flight time could have put the plane somewhere over the Indian Ocean, prompting US officials to consider expanding the search into that area.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, the newspaper said.
In a news conference yesterday, Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and the Malaysia Airlines chief executive played down or dismissed a series of leads that had led to frenzied speculation about the fate of Flight MH370, which went missing a week ago.
In what Malaysian officials describe as anunprecedented aviation mystery, it remains unknown whether the plane, which carried 227 passengers and 12 crew members, is on land or in water, east of the country or to the west, or even somewhere far beyond.
In Washington, Carney told reporters that the United States is not in a position to draw any conclusions.
However, he added, “it’s my understanding that based on some new information that’s not necessarily conclusive — but new information — an additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean.”
Search operations in the Indian Ocean, the world’s third-largest ocean with an average depth of nearly 12,800 feet, would present significant challenges.
The United States was “consulting with international partners about the appropriate assets to deploy,” Carney said at a White House news briefing yesterday.
Pressed for details, Carney said that “one possible piece of information or... pieces of information has led to the possibility that a new ... search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean, but I don’t have any more details on that.”
Adding to the confusion, Lt-Col Jeffrey Pool, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defence Department has no reason to believe that the plane crashed in the Indian Ocean.
He said US Navy assets participating in the search are being guided by the Malaysian government’s investigation. He said he did not know what new information Carney was referring to.
Hishammuddin, who is also acting transport minister, said, “We have looked at every lead. In many cases, in fact all the cases, we have not found anything positive.”
He added, “Without debris, we can’t feel we are making any progress.”
Though the search for flight MH370 has at times appeared chaotic and baffling – a mix of rumours, confusion and red herrings – it felt yesterday for the first time like the trail had gone cold.
As the search area continued to widen, the US navy said that it was shifting one of its ships involved in the hunt, the destroyer USS Kidd, from the Gulf of Thailand to the Strait of Malacca on the western side of the peninsula.
The US military also announced that it would add a P-8A Poseidon aircraft to the search today. That plane is described by its manufacturer, Boeing, as the world’s most sophisticated “long-range anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft”.
It will join a Navy P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft already patrolling as part of the massive international operation.
India’s Defence Ministry said Thursday that the Indian navy has launched its own search mission, sending two ships – the INS Kumbhir, an amphibious warfare ship, and the INS Saryu, a patrol vessel – into the Andaman Sea near the Malacca Strait. India also appointed Air Marshal A.K. Roy as coordinator for rescue operations with Malaysian authorities, the paper said.
Indian coast guard and navy aircraft were also pressed into service from a base on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A senior Indian official said late Thursday that a total of three ships, two planes and a helicopter have now been dispatched in the growing search effort.
Burma said it would open its airspace to planes looking for the missing airliner and was prepared to join the search if asked, the BBC reported.
Malaysian authorities categorically denied the Wall Street Journal’s initial report and said engine data were unavailable after the plane disappeared from civilian radar at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday. The last transmission from the engines came at 1.07am, Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said – 26 minutes after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur.
During all commercial flights, engines send bursts of data back to the ground at key intervals – during takeoff, for instance, and once reaching cruising altitude. Representatives from both Boeing and engine maker Rolls-Royce have been in Kuala Lumpur working with the airline, and neither received data after 1.07am, Ahmad Jauhari said.
Similarly, the New Scientist reported Tuesday that the engines transmitted just two packets of data, one while the plane was on the ground in Kuala Lumpur and one while it was climbing on its way to Beijing.
“The last transmission was received at 1.07,” Ahmad Jauhari told reporters. “It said everything was operating normally.”
Officials at the US Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday they had no information to back up the Journal report that the plane had remained airborne for hours.
They spoke on condition of anonymity since they were not authorised to comment.
A Rolls-Royce spokesman refused to comment on any aspect of data, saying only, “We continue to monitor the situation and offer Malaysia Airlines our support.”
Flight MH 370 was initially supposed to follow a northern path to Beijing.
Search teams from as many as 12 nations have been scouring the waters to the east and west of Malaysia. Earlier yesterday, attention focused on satellite images from a Chinese agency that showed three large objects in the water south of Vietnam.
But by midday, Malaysian authorities were dismissing the likelihood that those objects belonged to the plane.
Both Malaysian and Vietnamese teams returned Thursday to the coordinates of the large objects, but found nothing.
Even as viewed by satellite, the objects didn’t seem to match that of a plane wreck. The largest of the objects was roughly the size of a basketball court, with no smaller debris around.
The Chinese Embassy in Malaysia notified the Malaysian government yesterday, saying the images – released by a relatively unknown Chinese agency – were made public by mistake and did not relate to flight MH370.
“We are pretty much back at square one,” said Richard Aboulafia, a vice-president of analysis at the Teal Group Corporation.
Aboulafia said the combination of transponder and communications failure, together with the lack of debris and the possibility the plane turned around, suggested some kind of hostile takeover by passengers or crew.
Malaysia said it intended to again expand the search field for the missing plane.
But it remains unclear whether the search is best focused to the east or west of the Malay peninsula. The plane vanished over the eastern side, above the Gulf of Thailand, but Malaysia later found a military radar blip suggesting that an unidentified aircraft was tacking west.
The radar information has since been handed to the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board for analysis, a process that is not yet completed.
Hishammuddin said it remained possible that the plane turned around, diverting to the west after disappearing from radar.
But he added that the search was still focused around the location where the plane vanished. Of 46 ships involved in the search, 26 are in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, and 17 on the western side, in the Strait of Malacca and Andaman Sea.
“Our main effort has always been in the South China Sea,” Hishammuddin said. Malaysia has been criticised for at times releasing partial or contradictory information about the flight and search.
The criticism has been most pointed from China, which had 153 citizens on the flight. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said yesterday that Beijing had “asked the relevant party to enhance coordination” and find the plane as quickly as possible.
“First, this situation is unprecedented,” Hishammuddin said, in deflecting the criticism.
“MH370 went completely silent while over the open ocean. We are in the middle of a multi-national search involving many countries. This is a crisis situation. It is a very complex operation. And it has not always been easy.”
“We have not done anything that could jeopardise this search effort,” he added.
Malaysia Airlines announced separately that “as a mark of respect to the passengers and crew of MH370” who disappeared on March 8, it will retire the MH370 and MH371 flight codes it has used on its routes to and from Beijing.
MH is the designation for Malaysian Airline System, as the carrier is officially named. – March 14, 2014.