One of the most baffling mysteries in the history of modern aviation remains unsolved after nearly a week.
A new line of research into the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is focusing more on evidence that suggests it was diverted hundreds of kilometres off course.
In a far more detailed description of military radar plotting than has been publicly revealed, two sources told Reuters an unidentified aircraft that investigators suspect was missing Flight MH370 appeared to be following a commonly used navigational route when it was last spotted early on Saturday, northwest of Malaysia.
That course — headed into the Andaman Sea and towards the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean — could only have been set deliberately, either by flying the Boeing 777-200ER jet manually or by programming the auto-pilot.
Satellites picked up faint electronic pulses from the aircraft after it went missing on Saturday, but the signals gave no information about where the jet was heading and little else about its fate, two sources close to the investigation said on Thursday.
But the “pings” indicated its maintenance troubleshooting systems were switched on and ready to communicate with satellites, showing the aircraft was at least capable of communicating after losing touch with air traffic controllers.
The system transmits such pings about once an hour, according to the sources, who said five or six were heard. However, the pings alone are not proof that the plane was in the air or on the ground, the sources said.
Malaysian authorities have said the last civilian contact occurred as the Boeing 777-200ER flew north into the Gulf of Thailand. They said military radar sightings indicated it may have turned sharply to the west and crossed the Malay Peninsula toward the Andaman Sea.
The new information about signals heard by satellites shed little light on the mystery of what happened to the plane, whether it was a technical failure, a hijacking or another kind of incident on board.
While the troubleshooting systems were functioning, no data links were opened, the sources said, because the companies involved had not subscribed to that level of service from the satellite operator, the sources said.
Boeing and Rolls-Royce, which supplied its Trent engines, declined to comment.
Earlier Malaysian officials denied reports that the aircraft had continued to send technical data and said there was no evidence that it flew for hours after losing contact with air traffic controllers early last Saturday.
“It’s extraordinary that with all the technology that we’ve got that an aircraft can disappear like this,” Tony Tyler, the head of the International Air Transport Association that links over 90 percent of the world’s airlines, told reporters in London.
MILITARY DEPLOYMENT GROWS
Ships and aircraft are now combing a vast area that had already been widened to cover both sides of the Malay Peninsula and the Andaman Sea.
The U.S. Navy was sending an advanced P-8A Poseidon plane to help search the Strait of Malacca, separating the Malay Peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It had already deployed a Navy P-3 Orion aircraft to those waters.
U.S. defense officials told Reuters that the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, USS Kidd, was heading to the Strait of Malacca, answering a request from the Malaysian government. The Kidd had been searching the areas south of the Gulf of Thailand, along with the destroyer USS Pinckney.
India’s Defence Ministry has ordered the deployment of ships, aircraft and helicopters from the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. An Indian P8I Poseidon surveillance plane was sent to the Andaman islands on Thursday.
China, which had more than 150 citizens on board the missing plane, has deployed four warships, four coastguard vessels, eight aircraft and trained 10 satellites on a wide search area. Chinese media have described the ship deployment as the largest Chinese rescue fleet ever assembled.
On the sixth day of the search, planes scanned an area of sea where Chinese satellite images had shown what could be debris but found no sign of the airliner.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference the images were provided accidentally, saying the Chinese government neither authorized nor endorsed putting them on a website. “The image is not confirmed to be connected to the plane,” he said.
It was the latest in a series of contradictory reports, adding to the confusion and agony of the relatives of the passengers.
As frustration mounted over the failure to find any trace of the plane, China heaped pressure on Malaysia to improve coordination in the search.
Premier Li Keqiang, speaking at a news conference in Beijing, demanded that the “relevant party” step up coordination while China’s civil aviation chief said he wanted a “smoother” flow of information from Malaysia, which has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the disaster.
Malaysian police have said they were investigating whether any passengers or crew on the plane had personal or psychological problems that might shed light on the mystery, along with the possibility of a hijacking, sabotage or mechanical failure.
The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records of any commercial aircraft in service. Its only previous fatal crash came on July 6 last year when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 struck a seawall with its undercarriage on landing in San Francisco, killing three people.