By Richard C. Paddock, Andy Pasztor and Jon Ostrower
The Wall Street Journal
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 expanded by thousands of miles in an operation of unprecedented scale, marked by a series of twists that have made the least likely scenarios the most credible.
The number of countries searching for the flight, which fell off radar March 8 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, doubled to roughly two dozen over the weekend. Searchers are now looking for debris more than 3,200 miles away from the point at which they believe the plane’s transponders and another signaling system were deliberately turned off about an hour into the flight.
Malaysian authorities now say they believe foul play was behind the plane’s vanishing, and police are investigating all crew and passengers on the flight as well as engineers who may have had contact with the aircraft before takeoff. Police searched the pilots’ homes over the weekend, but Malaysia’s transport ministry said there was no evidence so far linking the pilots to the plane’s disappearance.
However, on Sunday, Malaysia’s transport minister said key communication equipment that keeps the ground updated about the health of a flying aircraft and its engines was disabled on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 before the last recorded conversation with the cockpit.
“Yes, it was before,” Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference Sunday in response to a reporter’s question about whether the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, of Flight 370 was disabled before someone said, “All right, good night” from the cockpit.
The ACARS system being disabled before the last voice message from the cockpit backs up thinking by experts that somebody with intricate understanding of the Boeing 777-200 jet and its systems tampered with communication equipment on board. The system apparently could only have been disabled by someone in the cockpit, according to an executive of Rockwell Collins, which bought ARINC, the firm that invented the ACARS system. The executive spoke to The Wall Street Journal on condition of anonymity.
On Thursday, Mr. Hishammuddin said the last automated message was sent out by the ACARS system at 1:07 a.m. Malaysia time. But he didn’t say then whether the system was disabled before or after the last comment from the cockpit.
The identity of the person making the last statement— ” All right, good night”—has not been confirmed.
The transponder signal from Flight 370 was lost at 1:21 a.m. All radar contact with the aircraft was lost a few minutes afterwards, according to Malaysian investigators. Transponders are another set of communication devices on aircraft that help identify individual flights to controllers on the ground.
Satellite tracking suggests the plane likely traveled for hours and ended up along one of two possible corridors: one that stretches from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and the other from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
“At this stage, both the northern and southern corridors are being treated with equal importance,” Malaysian Defense Minister and Acting Transportation Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said.
Air-safety experts said there has never been a search for remnants of an aircraft spanning such a vast area.
“The enormous size of the air and sea fleet searching, and the number of countries involved—I haven’t seen anything like it,” said Harro Ranter, president of the Aviation Safety Network, a service that tracks air accidents.
Depending on how long the effort lasts and how extensive a region leaders of the search eventually want to cover, some early estimates are that it could end up encompassing nearly 300,000 square miles.
Air-safety investigators rely heavily on precedent to solve mysteries that surround air accidents. But in Flight 370′s case normal procedures and investigative practices aren’t applicable, several air-safety experts said, because the probe is focused on apparent deliberate acts by someone or a group whose motives remain unknown. And at this point, investigators have no clear-cut clues from any wreckage or debris.
“I’ve never heard of anything as wild as some of the data” coming out of this investigation, said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
According to Mr. Hall, “the only consistent thing is that every expert has changed his mind at least once” during the course of the investigation.
In a development that could help narrow the search, five Asian nations over the weekend said their radar systems hadn’t detected any sign of the Malaysia Airlines aircraft that has been missing for nine days. Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, India and Pakistan—which all might have been on the flight path of the wayward Boeing 777—said there was no sign the plane had flown over their territories.
“Such a large object could not have gone undetected,” said one Indian military official in Port Blair in the Andaman Islands.
Still, investigators weren’t willing to rule out the possibility that the plane and its 239 passengers and crew traveled over or near those countries.
The twin possible paths of the errant jetliner were derived from calculations using the jet’s last known position, speed and likely fuel consumption allowing investigators to determine where Flight 370 was last seen and where it might have later exhausted its fuel.
The only aviation search that even approached the scope of the current effort, according to government safety officials and independent experts, was the hunt for debris after the 2003 breakup of the space shuttle Columbia as it re-entered the atmosphere over Texas. Debris collected from the Columbia disaster, which killed seven astronauts, amounted to 84,000 separate pieces. Remnants of one liquid oxygen tank weren’t found until eight years later.
Malaysian officials called together representatives of 22 countries Sunday and asked for assistance in tracking the plane’s movements, including the countries along the two corridors where the search is now under way.
“The nature of the search has changed,” Mr. Hishammuddin said. “From focusing mainly on shallow seas, we are now looking at large tracts of land, crossing 11 countries, as well as deep and remote oceans.”
The U.S. Navy over the weekend added more-advanced aerial surveillance assets and intensified the round-the-clock work from a Navy destroyer involved in the effort. Cmdr. William Marks, the spokesman for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, said an American P-8 Poseidon jet did a reconnaissance mission Sunday into the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The P-8, which can fly 575 miles an hour, flew about 1,200 miles out into the search area and then began looking for about four hours, Cmdr. Marks said.
Australia’s Chief Defense Force chief General David Hurley said Malaysian authorities coordinating the search had diverted an Australian AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft to begin searching for the plane to the north and west of the Cocos Islands, an atoll midway between Australia’s west coast and Sri Lanka.
Establishing definitive information about what transpired on the plane may not end even if the so-called black box is recovered. The plane’s digital cockpit-voice recorder saves only the last two hours of conversation and sounds inside the cockpit, so there won’t be any data going back to the instant the transponder was turned off and the plane deviated from off its original flight plan.
Since the 1970s, the only other instance of someone in the cockpit shutting off an onboard signaling system related to a crash was the 1997 disaster involving a SilkAir Boeing 737 in Indonesia, which killed all 104 people on the plane. NTSB investigators concluded the most likely cause was that the captain pulled a circuit breaker that disabled the flight-data recorder and cockpit-voice recorder, before deliberately sending the plane into its fatal dive from 35,000 feet. Indonesian investigators concluded the probable cause was some type of mechanical failure.
Investigators have entered uncharted territory in trying to piece together what happened on Flight 370, melding information from satellite data and military data to figure out where the plane went. As that analysis began to illustrate the jet’s sharp turn to the west, search teams expanded the search to into the Strait of Malacca toward the Andaman Sea, more than doubling the search area within days of the disappearance.
A week after the jet vanished, investigators had concluded the plane flew for more than six and a half hours from its last verified location.
Satellite data picked up from Flight 370 wasn’tt released until days after the aircraft went missing. The WSJ’s Deborah Kan speaks to imagery analyst Tim Brown about why it may be years before investigators find out what happened the Boeing 777.
—Gaurav Raghuvanshi and Daniel Michaels contributed to this article.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com and Jon Ostrower at firstname.lastname@example.org
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