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Missing Malaysian plane may have flown up to five hours, U.S. officials say

After search crews failed to find any trace of debris suggested by Chinese satellite photographs, Malaysian officials on Thursday said there was no evidence to back a newspaper report suggesting the plane may have kept flying for four hours after its last reported contact.
Credit: CNN

Missing Malaysia airliner: Questions and answers
By Eliott C. McLaughlin and Michael Pearson


(CNN) -- Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared Saturday somewhere over Southeast Asia. Authorities don't know where the plane is or what happened to it. Here are answers to frequently asked questions about this baffling disappearance:

Where the devil is this plane?

At this point, it's anyone's guess. The official search area covers 35,000 square miles now, including parts of the Gulf of Thailand, South China Sea, Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. If information from U.S. officials that the plane could have flown for hours after losing contact turns out to be true, it could be hundreds or even thousands of miles beyond that -- an area stretching from India all the way to Australia. If that's the case, only the luckiest of breaks would turn up the missing plane. "This area is tremendously large. This is an impossible task," said Peter Goelz, former National Transportation Safety Board managing director. "They've got to narrow it down more."

Did it go off course?

Possibly, but not certainly. Some accounts have placed the aircraft hundreds of miles from its expected flight path to Beijing, and authorities have expanded the search area to include that possibility. But they're also still searching areas along the flight path. A big problem is that the plane's identifying transponder wasn't working, making radar determinations more difficult. International experts are reviewing radar data and satellite data in hopes of helping pin down where the plane may have gone.

What is a transponder?

It's a radio transmitter in the cockpit that works with ground radar. When it receives a radar signal, it returns a code with the aircraft's position, altitude and call sign. Air traffic controllers use the signals to determine a plane's speed and direction.

Why did it stop working?

That's one of many million-dollar questions. The transponder is situated between the pilots and can be disabled with a twist of the wrist, but former airline captain Mark Weiss said that because of the vital information -- and thus, protection -- the transponder provides, it's highly unlikely a pilot would turn it off. Without the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, it's difficult to say who was in the cockpit and exactly what happened, Weiss said. Experts also give conflicting opinions: While one expert says the circumstances point to someone -- perhaps a hijacker -- deliberately turning the plane around, another says a catastrophic power failure could explain the anomalies.

What about the plane's data recorders?

Searchers would desperately love to get their hands on them. The flight data recorder would have details on what was going on in the cockpit before the plane disappeared and all sorts of technical data about what the plane was doing and how it was performing. The problem is that the device didn't broadcast their position over a large area, said science educator Bill Nye. So until searchers can narrow down their search for the plane, the data recorders won't help resolve the mystery.

Was anything else sending data on the plane?

Authorities believe "pings" from the plane were transmitted to satellites for four to five hours after the last transponder signal, a senior U.S. official told CNN. The pings from the plane's Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, known as ACARS, suggest the plane flew to the Indian Ocean, the official said. But there have been conflicting reports about this latest lead. Malaysian authorities earlier said nothing on the plane was transmitting after 1:07 a.m. Saturday.

But didn't the Wall Street Journal also report that the plane had sent out engine data for hours?

Yes. The newspaper later corrected its story, saying that data leading investigators to believe the plane had flown for up to five hours actually came from the plane's satellite-communication link. Malaysian officials denied the newspaper's earlier report, and a senior aviation source with extensive knowledge of the matter told CNN's Richard Quest that the newspaper's account was wrong. The source told Quest the plane was not sending engine data, as the newspaper had originally reported.

Could the plane have landed someplace?

One theory U.S. officials are considering, according to that Wall Street Journal report, is that someone might have taken the plane to be used for some other purpose later. So it's theoretically possible that the plane could have landed at some remote air strip where it's being hidden. But there are some big holes in that theory. The 777 is a big plane. It requires, at minimum, nearly a mile to land. And, says Quest, there's the matter of getting it someplace without setting off alarm bells. "You can't just fly a Triple 7 and not have a radar trace," he said. One senior U.S. official told CNN that "there is probably a significant likelihood" that the aircraft is now on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, citing information Malaysia has shared with the United States.

Couldn't a pilot just "fly under the radar"?

Again, theoretically. Being a tool to watch the sky, radar doesn't reach all the way to the ground. Military pilots are trained to take advantage of this when they need to sneak into a country undetected. But those aircraft also have terrain-evading radar and other features meant to help fighter and helicopter pilots hug the ground, noted aviation consultant Keith Wolzinger of the Spectrum Group. Understandably, Boeing doesn't offer that feature on its commercial airliners. "Airline pilots are not trained for radar avoidance," said Wolzinger, himself a former 777 pilot. "We like to be on radar." Also, unlike military craft, civilian airliners don't have gear to detect when they've been spotted on radar. So any effort to go undetected would be difficult and undoubtedly harrowing.

How does the search work?

Authorities break huge swaths of Earth into much smaller grids. Then, planes or ships scour the grids to eliminate them as candidates for the crash site. As of Thursday, 43 ships and 40 planes from a dozen countries were involved. The grids are massive and make up 35,000 square miles of land and sea, including the southern tip of Vietnam, South Thailand, about half of Malaysia and parts of the South China Sea, Gulf of Thailand and Strait of Malacca.

What about those Chinese satellite photos?

On Wednesday, China released satellite images from a spot in the South China Sea that appeared to show large objects floating in the water Sunday, a day after the disappearance. Search crews checked the location and found no trace of wreckage. China later said releasing the photos was a mistake and the images weren't related to the plane, according to a Malaysian official.

If the plane crashed into the water, would there be anything floating this many days later?

Not large pieces of the plane, according to Steve Wallace, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's former director of accident investigation. But "it's certainly possible that substantial pieces of lightweight debris, not aircraft structure, could be found floating six days after, the aircraft struck the water," he said. That could include things like life jackets and seat cushions, he said.

Could 'crowdsourcing' help find the plane?

Ostensibly, sure. Colorado firm DigitalGlobe has one of the most advanced commercial satellite networks, and its images of the Strait of Malacca and Gulf of Thailand can capture details as small as a baseball field's home plate, the longest side of which is 17 inches. Volunteers can flag anything they find interesting, but so many answered the call this week that the firm's website crashed. (The website appeared to be up Thursday.) Also, there's the troubling size of the search area.

Is this the first time a plane has vanished?

No, it's happened occasionally, and some have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Perhaps none was as a tricky as Air France 447, which went down after departing Rio de Janeiro on June 1, 2009. It took four searches and almost two years before the bulk of the wreckage and majority of bodies were recovered. The voice and data recorders weren't found on the ocean floor until May 2011.

How does a plane disappear?

There's no simple answer here, especially when you consider the bevy of technology on a state-of-the-art jetliner, which includes UHF and VHF radios, automatic beacons, GPS and computer communications systems. It doesn't help that Flight 370's flight path is unclear and that the search areas include vast waters and sparsely populated jungles and mountains.

Were the pilots experienced?

The short answer is yes. Fariq Ab Hamid, 27, joined Malaysia Airlines in 2007 and was first officer on the flight. He has 2,763 flying hours and was transitioning to the Boeing 777-200 after finishing training in a flight simulator. The pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, has 18,365 flying hours. He joined the airline in 1981.

There are reports that the first officer let passengers in the cockpit on another flight? Is that legal?

Jonti Roos has told several media outlets that Fariq invited her and a friend into the cockpit for most of a 2011 flight from Thailand to Malaysia. While this would be a strict violation of U.S. regulations put in place after the 9/11 attacks, the legality would vary from country to country. Upon learning of Roos' claim, Malaysia Airlines said it was "shocked," while former FAA chief of staff Michael Goldfarb said such behavior by a pilot "just violates every code of conduct."

Is foul play possible? Hijackers? Terrorism?

The CIA and FBI aren't ruling it out, but to be fair, authorities aren't ruling out much at this point. It's highly suspicious that the plane may have turned around. Those suspicions are further fueled by the loss of communication with the plane, considering the aircraft had "redundant electrical systems" that would have to be disabled. Robert Francis, former vice chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said his first thought upon hearing the circumstances of the flight's mysterious disappearance was that it blew up, but even then, an explosion would not be hard-and-fast evidence of terrorism.

What about those passengers with stolen passports?

Interpol says it has identified the men as Iranians Pouri Nourmohammadi, 18, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, and Malaysian investigators say neither of them has any apparent connection to terrorist organizations. Stolen passports certainly aren't indicative of terrorism. In fact, Interpol says passengers flew without having their travel documents checked against its lost-and-stolen passport database more than a billion times in 2013. Among the reasons someone might use a stolen passport: to immigrate illegally to another country, to import goods without being taxed or to smuggle stolen goods, people, drugs or weapons.

What about pilot error?

Certainly possible. That's what the investigation showed happened with the 2009 Air France flight, though there was an element of mechanical failure as well. In that case, though, there was also inclement weather -- not the case with Flight 370. As of Wednesday, nothing suggests that pilot error played a role in the flight's disappearance.

So, could mechanical failure explain it?

It's one of the stronger possibilities. The absence so far of any debris field could suggest the pilot had to make an emergency landing on water and the plane later sank into the sea, but there is still the mystery of the distress signal. There's wasn't one. However, aviation consultant Kit Darby has said that it's possible there was a power problem, and the backup power lasted only an hour and the pilot attempted to turn back to "the airports and a region he knows." There's also the possibility of a tail or wing ripping off. This particular Boeing suffered a clipped wingtip in the past, but Boeing repaired it. Another frightening possibility is that a window or door failed, which would allow ambient temperatures of 60 degrees below zero into the cabin, creating a freezing fog and giving crew members only seconds to don oxygen masks before they were disoriented and then incapacitated.

Could it have been hit by a meteor?

There was a known meteor in the area at takeoff, but this seems to be atop a list of strange conspiracy theories popping up in the absence of empirical data explaining the plane's disappearance. Given what little is known about the flight path, it seems like a long, long shot that a meteor is to blame.

What about reports that passengers' cell phones continued operating after the flight's disappearance?

Please see the earlier question about meteors and conspiracy theories. When phones are disabled or turned off -- which would presumably happen after a plane crash -- calls to those cell phones don't ring, but go directly to voice mail. Friends and loved ones of the missing passengers, however, reported ringing when they called. Technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan says a call would first connect to a network before trying to find the end user, and the ringing sound callers hear masks the silence they would otherwise hear while waiting for the connection to be made. "If it doesn't find the phone after a few minutes, after a few rings, then typically, it disconnects, and that's what's happening," he said.

CNN's Barbara Starr, Jim Sciutto and Pamela Brown contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey III, Scott Wilson and Chico Harlan
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.

The search for a missing Malaysian jetliner with 239 people onboard could expand westward into the Indian Ocean based on information that the plane may have flown for four hours after it dropped from radar, U.S. officials said Thursday.

A senior American official said the information came from a data stream sent by Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. If the two engines on the Boeing 777 functioned for up to four additional hours, that could strengthen concern that a rogue pilot or hijacker took control of the plane early Saturday over the Gulf of Thailand.

All other 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.

If the plane flew on for hours, it's likely that someone in the cockpit manually turned off the transponder and the radio.

"The fact that a modern airplane with a huge amount of redundancy appeared to change course at the same time that the transponder was turned off, that suggests that someone unauthorized took control of that airplane, like an intruder or one of the pilots," said a U.S. flight crash expert who spoke on condition of anonymity because is not directly involved in the investigation.

Other U.S. officials said their information did not reveal in what direction the plane flew — or whether it simply circled — during that time. Four hours of additional flight could have put the plane somewhere over the Indian Ocean, far from its Beijing destination, prompting officials to consider whether the search area should be expanded.

Modern airplanes send some information in a steady stream to their owners, the company that built them or the firm that built their engines. In the final minutes before Air France Flight 477 plunged into the Atlantic almost five years ago it sent 29 automatic error messages to the airline's home base in France.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that U.S. investigators suspect that the engines on the Malaysia Airlines flight kept running for up to four more hours after the plane reached its last known location. The paper later corrected its report to say that this belief was based on satellite data that was designed to report on the status of some onboard systems, not signals from monitoring systems embedded in the plane's Rolls-Royce engines. The Malaysian government denied the initial report.

In Washington, one senior administration official said the data about the plane engines came from the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, a way that planes maintain contact with ground stations through radio or satellite signals. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of an ongoing investigation, said Malaysian authorities shared the flight data with the administration.

Malaysian authorities had earlier said that engine data was unavailable after the plane disappeared from civilian radar at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday. The last transmission from the engines came 26 minutes after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.

"The last transmission was received at 1:07," Ahmad told reporters. "It said everything is operating normally."

Representatives from both Boeing and Rolls-Royce have been in Kuala Lumpur working with the airline, and neither received data after 1:07 a.m., Ahmad said. A Rolls-Royce spokeswoman refused to comment on the reports.

The search for Flight 370 has at times appeared chaotic and baffling — a mix of rumors, confusion and red herrings. The government in Kuala Lumpur acknowledged Thursday that it has made little progress in solving the mystery of the vanished plane.

"We have looked at every lead. In many cases, in fact all the cases, we have not found anything positive." said Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's defense minister and acting transport minister.

"This just might be something we have never seen before," said Steven Wallace, former director of the Federal Aviation Administration's office of accident investigation, in an interview on Thursday.

Wallace said progress may be hampered because Malaysia lacks an investigative branch like the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

"The pattern here is that the best information is not being immediately presented to the smartest people around who could look at it," Wallace said. He noted that Malaysian authorities only revealed after several days that their military radar had picked up signs of a mysterious plane flying off Malaysia's western coast after the passenger jet disappeared much further east.

Then, China disclosed three days after the fact that its satellites had picked up images of what appeared to be debris in the area where the plane might have vanished. No signs of the wreckage were ultimately found there.

"And then we have this new business about the engines sending [signals] automatically, also several days old," said Wallace.

And the information about those engine signals is fraught with contradictions.

"Between Rolls Royce and Malaysia Air, they know whether they have that technology in place, yet we get conflicting reports," he said.

In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the United States is not in a position to draw any conclusions. However, he added, "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."

Search operations in the Indian Ocean, the world's third-largest ocean with an average depth of nearly 12,800 feet, would present significant challenges.

The United States is "consulting with international partners about the appropriate assets to deploy," Carney told reporters Thursday.

As the search area continued to widen, with nearly a dozen countries involved, the U.S. Navy said Thursday that it was shifting one of its ships involved in the hunt, the destroyer USS Kidd, from the Gulf of Thailand to the Malacca Strait on the western side of the Malay Peninsula.

The U.S. military also announced that it would add a P-8A Poseidon aircraft to the search on Friday. It will join a Navy P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft already patrolling in the area.

India's Defense Ministry said Thursday that the Indian navy has launched its own search mission, sending two ships — the INS Kumbhir, an amphibious warfare ship, and the INS Saryu, a patrol vessel — into the Andaman Sea near the Malacca Strait. Indian coast guard and navy aircraft were also pressed into service.

Burma said it would open its airspace to planes looking for the missing airliner and was prepared to join the search if asked, the BBC reported.

- - -

Washington Post staffers Simon Denyer and William Wan in Beijing, Karla Adams in London and William Branigin and Ernesto Londono in Washington contributed to this report.

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