Searching area for missing Malaysia Airlines plane may expand to Indian Ocean

Kuala Lumpur/Beijing –  U.S. officials say the searching area for a Malaysia Airlines plane with 239 people aboard that has disappeared for almost a week may expand to the Indian Ocean.

“It is my understanding that one possible piece of information or collection — pieces of information has led to the possibility that a new area — a search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday.

Carney did not specify what the new information was and Malaysian officials have not commented on his words.

The Boeing 777-200 vanished off the civilian radar screen about one hour after it took off in Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 0:41 a.m. (1641GMT) Saturday. It was due to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m.(2230GMT).

A CNN report quoted a senior U.S. official as saying that Malaysian authorities believe they have several “pings” from the airliner’s service data system, known as ACARS, transmitted to satellites in the four or five hours after the last transponder signal, suggesting the plane flew to the Indian Ocean.

That information combined with known radar data and knowledge of fuel range leads officials to believe the plane may have made it to that ocean, which is in the opposite direction of its original route, the official said.

This new information led to a decision to move the USS Kidd into the Indian Ocean to begin searching that area, the official added.

CNN quoted William Marks, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, as saying that the Navy destroyer is moving westward into the Strait of Malacca at the request of the Malaysian government.

Marks also told CNN that searching such a wide area would not be easy, as moving into the Indian Ocean is like going “from a chess board to a football field.”

The Associated Press on Friday quoted a U.S. official as saying the plane sent signals to a satellite for four hours after it went missing, indicating that it was still flying for hundreds of miles or more.

The aircraft was not transmitting data to the satellite, but was instead sending out a signal to establish contact, the report quoted the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying.

Malaysia Airlines did not subscribe to that service, but the plane was able to connect with the satellite and was automatically sending pings, the official said.

“It’s like when your cellphone is off but it still sends out a little ‘I’m here’ message to the cellphone network,” the official said. “That’s how sometimes they can triangulate your position even though you’re not calling because the phone every so often sends out a little bleep. That’s sort of what this thing was doing.”

Messages involving a different, more rudimentary data service also were received from the airliner for a short time after the plane’s transponder — a device used to identify the plane to radar — went silent, the official said.

If the plane had disintegrated during flight or had suffered some other catastrophic failure, all signals –the pings to the satellite, the data messages and the transponder — would be expected to stop at the same time, the report said.

A Reuters report quoted two sources close to U.S. investigation as saying that the system transmits such pings about once an hour and five or six were heard.

But the sources added the pings alone cannot prove that the plane was in the air or on the ground.

Boeing and Rolls-Royce, which supplied its Trent engines, declined to comment.

Malaysian authorities on Thursday denied news reports that the plane may have continued flying for some time after last contact, saying these reports are “inaccurate.”

More than 80 ships and planes from at least 12 contributors are now combing the waters on both sides of the Malaysian peninsula to locate the missing plane.

One part of the hunt is in the South China Sea, where the aircraft was seen on civilian radar flying northeast before vanishing without any indication of technical problems.

A similar-sized search is also being conducted in the Strait of Malacca because of military radar sightings that might indicate the plane turned in that direction after its last contact, passing over the Malay Peninsula.

The total search area being covered is about 35,800 square miles (92,600 square km) — about the size of Portugal, according to the AP report.

On board the plane were 154 Chinese, including one from Taiwan and one infant.

Chinese forces, including eight vessels and five helicopters, has covered 45,763 sq km as of 12 a.m. Thursday, after continuous searching for 100 hours in South China Sea, according to China Maritime Search and Rescue Center.

Meanwhile, Chinese merchant ships are traveling in the Strait of Malacca and will help provide assistance. Source: Xinua