Investigators look to foul play in case of missing Malaysia jet

Analysts search for explanations on why plane may have dramatically changed course and altitude mid flight

A Malaysia Airlines employee writes a message for passengers on missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, March 14, 2014.
Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Piracy and pilot suicide are among the scenarios under study as investigators grow increasingly certain the missing Malaysian Airlines jet changed course and headed west after its last radio contact with air traffic controllers.

The latest evidence suggests the plane didn't experience a catastrophic incident over the South China Sea as was initially suspected, with a variety of analysts drawing up narratives that include one of the pilots, or someone else with flying experience, hijacking the plane or committing suicide by plunging the jet into the sea.

Adding to the speculation that someone other than the pilot was flying the plane, The New York Times on Friday quoted sources familiar with the investigation as saying that the aircraft experienced significant changes in altitude after it lost contact with ground control, and altered its course more than once.

The New York Times, quoting American officials and others familiar with the investigation, said radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appear to show the airliner climbing to 45,000 feet, higher than a Boeing 777's approved limit, and making a sharp turn to the west soon after it disappeared from civilian radar.

The radar track then shows the plane descending unevenly to an altitude of 23,000 feet (7,000 meters), below normal cruising levels, before rising again and flying northwest over the Strait of Malacca toward the Indian Ocean, the Times reported.

A U.S. official told The Associated Press earlier that investigators are examining the possibility of "human intervention" in the plane's disappearance, adding it may have been "an act of piracy." The official, who wasn't authorized to talk to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said it also was possible the plane may have landed somewhere. The official later said there was no solid information on who might have been involved.

While other theories are still being examined, the official said key evidence suggesting human intervention is that contact with the Boeing 777's transponder stopped about a dozen minutes before a messaging system on the jet quit. Such a gap would be unlikely in the case of an in-flight catastrophe.

A Malaysian official, who also declined to be identified because he is not authorized to brief the media, said only a skilled aviator could navigate the plane the way it was flown after its last confirmed location over the South China Sea. The official said it had been established with a "more than 50 percent" degree of certainty that military radar had picked up the missing plane after it dropped off civilian radar.

Malaysia's acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said the country had yet to determine what happened to the plane after it ceased communicating with ground control around 40 minutes into its flight to Beijing on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

He said investigators were still trying to establish that military radar records of a blip moving west across the Malay Peninsula into the Strait of Malacca showed Flight MH370.

"I will be the most happiest person if we can actually confirm that it is the MH370, then we can move all [search] assets from the South China Sea to the Strait of Malacca," he told reporters. Until then, he said, the international search effort would continue expanding east and west from the plane's last confirmed location.

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In a far more detailed description of military radar plotting than has been publicly revealed, two sources said that 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 — heading over the Andaman Sea toward the Bay of Bengal — could only have been set deliberately, either by flying the Boeing 777-200ER manually or by programming the autopilot. A third investigative source said inquiries were focusing more on the theory that someone who knew how to fly a plane deliberately diverted the flight, with 239 people on board, hundreds of miles off its course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"What we can say is we are looking at sabotage, with hijack still in the cards," the source, a senior Malaysian police official, told Reuters.

Hussein said Friday that authorities will follow all leads. 

"When we receive new information and it has been verified, we act accordingly. Wherever there is a possibility, we have a duty to investigate it," he told reporters. 

As one of the most baffling mysteries in the history of modern aviation remains unsolved after nearly a week, the news of the military radar evidence is consistent with the expansion of the search for the aircraft to the west of Malaysia, possibly as far as the Indian Ocean.

Vietnam on Friday said Malaysian authorities had asked it to consider sending planes and ships to the Strait to Malacca, another signal that the focus of the search effort is switching to the west of Malaysia, to the strait and farther west into the Indian Ocean.

"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," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.

There are 57 ships, 48 aircraft and 13 countries involved in the search.

Adding to the deepening mystery surrounding the fate of Flight MH370, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that U.S. investigators suspect the aircraft flew for about four hours after reaching its last confirmed location, under conditions that remain murky.

But Malaysian authorities quickly dismissed the report. "As Malaysia Airlines will confirm shortly, those reports are inaccurate," said Hussein.

Satellites picked up faint electronic pulses, or pings, from the aircraft after it went missing on Saturday, but the signals gave no immediate information about where the jet was heading and little else about its fate, two sources close to the investigation said on Thursday.

U.S. experts are still examining the data to see if any information about its last location could be extracted, a source close to the investigation told Reuters.

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.

The last sighting of the aircraft on civilian radar screens came shortly before 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 9, less than an hour after taking off. It was flying as scheduled across the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side of peninsular Malaysia, heading toward Beijing.

However, Malaysia's air force chief said on Wednesday that an aircraft that could have been the missing plane was plotted on military radar at 2:15 a.m., 200 miles northwest of Penang Island, off Malaysia's west coast. This position marks the limit of Malaysia's military radar in that part of the country, a fourth source familiar with the investigation told Reuters.

Malaysia says it has asked neighboring countries for their radar data but has not confirmed receiving the information. Indonesian and Thai authorities said on Friday they had not received an official request for such data from Malaysia.

The fact that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control and was invisible to civilian radar suggested someone on board had turned off its communication systems, the first two sources said.

In the case of the Malaysian plane, there were successful attempts by the satellite to roughly locate the Boeing 777 about once an hour over four to five hours, the official said. "This is all brand new to us," the official said. "We've never had to use satellite handshaking as the best possible source of information."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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