KUALA LUMPUR, March 14 — India’s navy set up a search zone for the missing Malaysian airliner in the Andaman Sea, hundreds of miles off the course of Flight 370, as evidence mounted that the plane may have flown long after controllers lost contact.
Aviation investigators are compiling signs the Boeing Co. 777-200 veered off its route and traveled west over Malaysia, beyond the limits of the country’s radars, according to two people who asked not to be identified with the probe active.
A satellite transmitter on the plane was active for about five hours, indicating the plane was operational after its transponder shut down less than an hour after takeoff, said three US government officials. The 777 can cruise at 805kph or more, meaning it may have flown for as much as 2,500 miles beyond its last point of contact if it was intact and had enough fuel.
The information adds to the mystery surrounding the March 8 disappearance of the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane carrying 239 people. With no evidence of a mechanical failure or pilot error, US investigators are treating the disappearance as a case of air piracy, though it remains unclear by whom, one person said.
“I can’t think of a single example of a large airplane completely disappearing without seemingly leaving a trace for this many days,” said Hans Weber, president of Tecop International Inc, a San Diego-based consultant.
The satellite communications came from an onboard monitoring system that, if fully activated, can send data about how the plane’s equipment is working to Boeing, according to the person familiar with the equipment.
While Malaysian never subscribed, meaning the system didn’t gather detailed information about the flight, it was in an idle position of sorts and periodically sent a pulse to a satellite.
The data doesn’t necessarily indicate the jet was flying the whole time. It may be possible for the system to operate if the 777 was on the ground, the person said. It probably can’t operate following a crash, especially on the water where components would likely sink, the person said.
Inmarsat Plc, the London-based satellite operator, picked up “routine, automated signals” from Flight 370, according to a statement e-mailed by Jonathan Sinnatt, a spokesman. He declined to elaborate.
Inmarsat shared its information with SITA, the main carrier in that region for land- and satellite-based message traffic between aircraft and ground personnel. SITA in turn shared the data with Malaysian Airlines, he said.
Radar signals sent from the ground continued to reflect back from Flight 370 after its transponder went dead as the aircraft headed north from Malaysia toward Vietnam, said the people. After the transponder shut off, making the 777 harder to follow on radar, the plane turned left toward the west instead of continuing on its path.
The new search by India’s navy covers 35,000 square kilometres off the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. That is on the opposite side of Malaysia from the plane’s intended path to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.
India is searching primarily in waters just north of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, “but we are also searching the Andaman and Nicobar island areas north to south tomorrow,” said Harmit Singh, a navy spokesman in the Andaman Nicobar region. “Some areas to the west of Andaman and Nicobar are also being planned. The areas of search are being given by Malaysia.”
India is the only country sending ships into the area at this time, said US Marine Corps Major Jeff Pool, a Pentagon spokesman.
The search area has a northern edge 270 nautical miles from Port Blair and a western edge 70 nautical miles from Campbell Bay, said D.K. Sharma, an Indian Navy spokesman.
US investigators have been studying a radar blip detected hundreds of miles west of the plane’s intended route, in the area of the Malacca Strait, about 2:15 a.m. local time March 8. That was 45 minutes after contact was lost with the jet flying to Beijing through the Gulf of Thailand.
The 777 had enough fuel to fly the 4,345km to Beijing and reserves to fly to a diversion airport.
The aircraft’s transponder normally sends signals to ground radar stations making it easier to follow and providing other information, such as its identity and altitude. While it’s possible for the unit to malfunction or be accidentally switched off, it is highly suspicious for the device to fail at the same time a plane makes an abrupt change of course.
Planes and ships from a dozen countries scouring land and sea on both sides of Peninsular Malaysia have yielded few answers on what caused Flight 370 to disappear.
Vietnam sent a plane to verify Chinese satellite images that appeared to show three floating objects, only to find nothing there. Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, said yesterday that Chinese officials notified Malaysia the satellite images were “released by mistake” and weren’t related to Flight 370.
The US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is supporting the Department of Defense to find the missing aircraft, said spokesman Donald Kerr in an e-mailed statement. The Defense Department is following up on all leads on the potential path of the aircraft and assisting US Pacific Command in its search for debris fields.
“It’s frustrating for everyone, but agonizing for the families of those passengers on the flight,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said at a briefing in Washington yesterday.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to them especially because this is truly agonizing for them.”
The US Navy is moving the destroyer USS Kidd from the Gulf of Thailand to the Strait of Malacca to help in the search, Commander William Marks, a spokesman for the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said in an e-mail.
It also will move a P-8A Poseidon aircraft into the area tomorrow to rotate with a P-3C Orion craft that has been involved in the search, he said. The P3-C is still in the Gulf of Thailand area, according to Pool, the Pentagon spokesman.
Boeing said it already has investigators on site to assist the US National Transportation Safety Board. These teams would probably include 777 structures experts who can quickly identify crucial aircraft components, said John Purvis, a retired accident investigator who headed Boeing’s investigations unit for much of the 1980s and 1990s. — Bloomberg