A massive search was launched after the Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared on 8 March
Investigators examining the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines plane with 239 people aboard believe it most likely that the plane flew into the southern Indian Ocean, a source close to the investigation has said.
“The working assumption is that it went south, and furthermore that it went to the southern end of that corridor,” said the source, referring to a search area stretching from west of Indonesia to the Indian Ocean west of Australia.
Thai radar picked up an “unknown aircraft” minutes after flight MH370 last transmitted its location but officials failed to report the findings earlier as the plane was not considered a threat, the air force said today.
The information emerged during checks of radar logs on Monday – nine days after the Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 239 passengers and crew disappeared – after a request from the Malaysian government, according to Air Marshal Monthon Suchookorn.
An “unknown aircraft was detected at 00.28 (local time, 1.28 am Malaysian time), six minutes after MH370 vanished” in the South China Sea, moving southwest towards Kuala Lumpur and the Strait of Malacca, he told AFP.
That timing corresponds with the last transmission from the Boeing 777’s transponder at 1:21 am Malaysian time, which relayed information about the plane’s altitude and location.
The timing of the plane being spotted travelling in the opposite direction from MH370’s intended flight path to Beijing also comes after the final voice communication from the jet, a seemingly relaxed “All right, good night” at 1.19 am.
Malaysia Airlines believes it was the co-pilot speaking from the cockpit.
Mr Monthon said that although the signal was sporadic, the aircraft was later again picked up by Thai radar swinging north and disappearing over the Andaman Sea.
“It’s not confirmed that the aircraft is MH370,” he said, adding he was unable to give “exact times” of the later sightings.
The plane slipped off Malaysian civilian radar screens at 1:30 am but continued to blip on its military radars until 2.15 am before disappearing entirely.
The Thai revelations are likely to fuel anger at the apparently sluggish and at times contradictory official response to the jet’s disappearance, which has left anguished relatives pleading for answers on the fate of their loved ones.
The Thai air force did not check its records because the aircraft was not in “Thai airspace and it was not a threat to Thailand”, the spokesman said, denying it had been “withholding information”.
Initially the massive search for the vanished jet focused on the Gulf of Thailand and adjacent South China Sea, with several nations sending boats, helicopters and jets to scour the waters.
The investigation into the fate of the Boeing 777 has focused on findings it was likely deliberately diverted from its flight path to Beijing, probably by someone in the cockpit with advanced aviation skills.
But the drip-feed of often conflicting information from Malaysia has sparked fury among desperate relatives and condemnation from Chinese authorities. Two-thirds of those on board were Chinese.
Twenty-six countries are now involved in the hunt which covers a vast arc of land and sea, in a northern corridor over south and central Asia, and a southern corridor stretching deep into the southern Indian Ocean towards Australia.
Area of Malaysia plane search now size of Australia
An international land and sea search for a missing Malaysian jetliner is covering an area the size of Australia, authorities said on Tuesday, but police and intelligence agencies have yet to establish a clear motive to explain its disappearance.
Investigators are convinced that someone with deep knowledge of the Boeing 777-200ER and commercial navigation diverted Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, carrying 12crew and 227 mainly Chinese passengers, perhaps thousands of miles off its scheduled course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
But intensive background checks of everyone aboard have so far failed to find anyone with a known political or criminal motive to hijack or deliberately crash the plane, Western security sources and Chinese authorities said.
Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Husseintold a news conference the “unique, unprecedented” search covered a total area of 2.24 million nautical miles (7.68million sq km), from central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean.
Flight MH370 vanished from civilian air traffic control screens off Malaysia’s east coast less than an hour after take-off early on 8 March.
Investigators piecing together patchy data from militaryradar and satellites believe that someone turned off the aircraft’s identifying transponder and ACARS system, which transmits maintenance data, and turned west, re-crossing the Malay Peninsula and following a commercial aviation route towards India.
Malaysian officials have backtracked on the exact sequenceof events. They are now unsure whether the ACARS system was shutdown before or after the last radio message was heard from th ecockpit – but said that did not make a material difference.
“This does not change our belief, as stated, that up until the point at which it left military primary radar coverage, the aircraft’s movements were consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” said Mr Hishammuddin. “That remains the position of the investigating team.”
China’s ambassador to Malaysia said his country had investigated its nationals aboard the flight and could rule out their involvement.
US and European security sources said efforts by various governments to investigate the backgrounds of everyone on the flight had not, as of Monday, turned up links to militant groups or anything else that could explain the jet’s disappearance.
Malaysian police investigations have also failed to turn up any red flags on 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the captain, or co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27.
Accounts of their lives portray them as sociable, well-balanced and happy. Neither fits the profile of a loner or extremist with a motive for suicide or hijacking.
“I’ve never seen him lose his temper. It’s difficult to believe any of the speculation made against him,” said Peter Chong, a friend of Zaharie, describing him as highly discipline dand conscientious.
The New York Times cited senior US officials as saying that the first turn back to the west was likely programmed intothe aircraft’s flight computer, rather than being executed manually, by someone knowledgeable about aircraft systems.
Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told today’s daily news conference that that was “speculation.”
Malaysian officials said on Monday that suicide by the pilot or co-pilot was a line of inquiry, although they stressed that it was only one of the possibilities under investigation. Police have searched their homes in middle-class suburbs of Kuala Lumpur close to the airport.
Among the items taken for examination was a flight simulator Zaharie had built in his home.
A senior police officer with direct knowledge of the investigation said the programs from the pilot’s simulator included Indian Ocean runways in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Diego Garcia and southern India, although he added that US and European runways also featured.
“Generally these flight simulators show hundreds or even thousands of runways,” the officer said. “What we are trying tosee is what were the runways that were frequently used.”
Thailand yesterday a re-examination of its military radar data had picked up the plane re-tracing its route across Peninsular Malaysia. The Thai military had previously said it had not detected any sign of the plane.
What happened next is less certain. The plane may have flown for another six hours or more after dropping off Malaysian military radar about 200 miles northwest of Penang Island.
But the satellite signals that provide the only clues were not intended to work as locators. The best they can do is place the plane in one of two broad arcs – one stretching from Laos up to the Caspian, the other from west of Indonesia down to the Indian Ocean off Australia – when the last signal was picked up.
China, which, with Kazakhstan, is leading the search in the northern corridor, said on Tuesday it had deployed 21 satellites to scour its territory.
Australia, which is leading the southernmost leg of the search, said it had shrunk its search field based on satellite tracking data and analysis of weather and currents, but that it still covered 600,000 sq km (230,000 sq miles).
“A needle in a haystack remains a good analogy,” John Young, general manager of the emergency response division of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), told reporters.
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