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Search for lost jet shifts toward Indian Ocean

WASHINGTON — Investigators are examining data that appear to show that the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner was still in automated communication with satellite systems, and may therefore still have been airborne or at least functional, for hours after ground controllers last heard from it, the New York Times reported, citing a well-placed official involved in the investigation.

The information added to a growing belief that the jet turned off course after contact was lost and could have traveled hundreds of miles west, across the Malaysian peninsula and out over the Indian Ocean. Some search efforts were redirected to those waters Thursday, with the redeployment of U.S. naval aircraft and the USS Kidd, a destroyer.

Revelations that the aircraft continued to communicate with satellites long after it was reported lost added to a swirl of new information and speculation about its fate. ABC News reported Thursday evening that U.S. officials believe the shutdown of two communications systems aboard the aircraft happened at separate times, suggesting they were turned off deliberately rather than as a result of a catastrophic failure. The ABC report, which quoted two unidentified officials, could not be immediately corroborated.

Data captured before the aircraft's communications systems ceased to function appeared to reflect regular attempts by equipment on the plane to establish a link with a satellite. Such a link would be used to transmit routine maintenance data about the plane, if the airline operating it subscribed to that service.

The attempts continued periodically for a considerable time after the plane's transponder, which identifies it to ground control radar, stopped functioning 40 minutes into the flight, the investigator said, but electronics experts have not yet established exactly how long. It was not clear how much information could be gleaned from the satellite communications, beyond the length of time that the contacts persisted.

The new evidence suggesting that the plane kept flying for hours was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Malaysian officials denied Thursday that any data was received from the aircraft after contact with ground controllers was lost.

Radar blips detected by the Malaysian military also strongly suggest that an unidentified aircraft — likely the missing jet — remained airborne after Flight 370, with 239 people on board, ceased communications with air traffic controllers. The radar showed the aircraft crossing the peninsula from east to west near the Malaysia-Thailand border and flying over the Strait of Malacca.

Military radar last recorded the plane 200 miles northwest of Penang, Malaysia, flying at 29,500 feet, officials said. They said the data was being shared with the United States and China to help determine whether the aircraft was Flight 370.

The search area being combed by dozens of ships and planes was expanded Thursday to take in parts of the Andaman Sea, the arm of the Indian Ocean northwest of the strait, and may grow further.

"Based on some new information that's not necessarily conclusive, but new information, an additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean, and we are consulting with international partners about the appropriate assets to deploy," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

The Pentagon said the Kidd would search in the Andaman Sea at the request of the Malaysian government and that a P-3 surveillance plane had already flown over the area. Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesman for India's External Affairs Ministry, said India had also sent three ships, two airplanes and a helicopter to search in that area.

The plane, a Boeing 777, was bound for Beijing and had fuel on board to fly at least 2,500 miles.

Communication with the plane ended after 1 a.m. At that point, the pilot signed off with Malaysian air traffic controllers with a casual "All right, good night," according to news reports. Within 30 minutes the transponder signal the plane was sending to ground-based radar stations went dark.

At that point, the plane was on course, heading northeast from Kuala Lumpur over the Gulf of Thailand toward Vietnamese airspace. The hunt initially concentrated on those waters to the east of the Malaysian peninsula.

Days of intensive searching produced nothing but false leads and floating debris that turned out to be unrelated to the aircraft. Still, Malaysia's defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said Thursday that the main search effort would continue in that area.

Pentagon officials said that several U.S. agencies were reviewing the radar blips recorded by the Malaysian military but had not yet found anything that would indicate specifically where the missing plane might have gone. Malaysian and U.S. authorities were "looking pretty closely" at the possibility that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean but that they had not reached any conclusions, the New York Times reported, citing a senior Pentagon official.

Malaysian officials who briefed reporters Thursday denied the initial report from Journal that the aircraft had continued to transmit technical data about the status of its engines after 1:30 a.m. Saturday, the approximate time when the pilots last spoke to ground controllers by radio.

The chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, said that the last data received from Flight 370 came at 1:07 a.m. Saturday and gave no indication of trouble with the plane.

"That was the last transmission," Ahmad Jauhari said at the news conference, held in Sepang, where the international airport serving Kuala Lumpur is. "It did not run beyond that."

The Journal later corrected its report to say satellite contacts, not transmission of technical data, had continued for hours.

Malaysian authorities said Thursday that nothing had come of images recorded by Chinese satellites Sunday and posted online Wednesday, which appeared to show large objects floating in the South China Sea. Aircraft and ships sent to the area found nothing, they said, and Hishammuddin said he was told by Chinese officials that "the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris."

The government also denied reports that police had searched the missing pilot's house.

Search for lost jet shifts toward Indian Ocean 03/13/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2014 11:53pm]
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