US investigators are examining whether missing Flight MH370 was “intentionally diverted” from its planned route after new data revealed the plane may have flown for a further four hours from the point of its last confirmed location.
A report in the Wall Street Journal said US counter-terrorism officials are examining the possibility the plane’s course was changed “with the intention of using it later for another purpose” and that its transponders were intentionally turned off to avoid radar detection.
The report said data downloaded automatically from the plane’s engines, suggests the plane flew for a total of five hours. Its final confirmed location was at 1.31am last Saturday, about 40 minutes after it took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. At that point it was heading north-east across the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on what should have been a six-hour flight to Beijing.
If true, the information downloaded from the plane’s Rolls Royce engines as part of a routine maintenance and monitoring programme, suggests the plane could have flown on for hundreds of miles and reached as far as India or even the north-west coast of Australia. It would expand the possible search area almost limitlessly.
Yet the report says the data has led investigators in the US to pursue the prospect that the plane may have been diverted by a pilot or someone else. It is unclear whether the plane reached an alternate destination or if it crashed, potentially hundreds of miles from where an international search effort involving 12 countries and more than 80 boats and planes has been focused.
Six days after the plane went missing, most reports had suggested that terrorism or hijacking had been largely discounted. But the report said the new data raised a “host of new questions and possibilities about what happened” to the plane and its 239 passengers and crew.
The report said US investigators remained “fluid” as to the causes of the plane’s disappearance and that it remained unclear whether investigators had evidence indicating possible terrorism or espionage.
The new revelations came as an effort to locate the plane spread out over more than 27,000 nautical square miles. Search planes had been dispatched to a site believed to be the location of where a Chinese government agency website said a satellite had photographed three “suspicious floating objects” on Sunday. It is unclear why it took China so long to share the information.
The location was close to where the plane lost contact with air traffic control but by early Thursday afternoon local time, nothing had been found at the spot. The Associated Press said the head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, had confirmed no debris had been located by the Vietnamese and Malaysian plans dispatched there.
Earlier on Thursday, China continued to put pressure on Malaysia. Of the 239 people on board, more than 150 were from China. China has criticised Malaysia for the slow pace of the operation and what it has called conflicting information about the search.
Speaking in Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang, called for the “relevant party” step up coordination while China’s civil aviation chief. “We will not give up on any suspected clue that has been found,” he said. “This is an international and large-scale search operation involving many countries.”
The last definitive sighting on civilian radar screens of MH370 came at 1.31am on Saturday, less than an hour after the plane took. On Wednesday Rodzali Daud, the Malaysian air force chief, said a dot was plotted on military radar at 2.15 a.m., 200 miles north-west of Penang Island off Malaysia’s west coast at the northern tip of the Strait of Malacca.
But he stressed that there was no confirmation that the dot on the radar was Flight MH370. He said Malaysia was sharing the data with the US Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Security Board.