Report: U.S. Investigators Suspect Missing Plane May Have Gone 2,200 Miles Off Course

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
March 13 2014 10:25 AM

The Mystery of Flight MH370, Already Unprecedented, Just Got Even Bigger

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Malaysia's Minister of Defence and Acting Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein (C) answers questions from journalists during a press conference at a hotel near Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang on March 13, 2014

Photo by MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

The at-times chaotic and nearly always confusing search for flight MH370 is now almost a week old, and authorities seem no closer to determining what happened to the jetliner that vanished from civilian air traffic radar roughly an hour after it left Kuala Lumpur. In the meantime, the already unprecedented aviation mystery seems to grow by the day with new possible theories emerging as fast if not faster than existing ones can be dismissed.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

Yesterday, hopes for finding the missing Boeing 777 were briefly stirred by reports from China that its satellites had spotted a "suspected crash area at sea" near the plane's last known position. But by this morning (our time), those had been largely extinguished after a search of the area turned up empty. "There is nothing," Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman told reporters Thursday. "We went there, there is nothing."

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Meanwhile, a report in the Wall Street Journal raised the possibility that the missing plane had remained in the air for roughly four hours past the time it reached its last confirmed location, a theory that if true would suggest the aircraft could have traveled another 2,200 nautical miles based on the jet's cruising speed. That means the jetliner could have reached points as far away as the Indian Ocean, the border of Pakistan, or even the Arabian Sea, according to the paper.

The report, which cited "two people familiar with the details" of the investigation, was said to be based on data transmitted by the plane's engines back to their manufacturer, Rolls-Royce. Such transmissions happen periodically during a flight so the company can monitor the engine's health. As unimaginable as the idea of a passenger plane traveling 2,000-odd miles unnoticed might be, the questions such a detour would raise would be even more pressing (emphasis on the rather terrifying anonymous quote mine):

The investigation remains fluid, and it isn't clear whether investigators have evidence indicating possible terrorism or sabotage. So far, U.S. national security officials have said that nothing specifically points toward terrorism, though they haven't ruled it out.
But the huge uncertainty about where the plane was headed, and why it apparently continued flying so long without working transponders, has raised theories among investigators that the aircraft may have been commandeered for a reason that appears unclear to U.S. authorities. Some of those theories have been laid out to national security officials and senior personnel from various U.S. agencies, according to one person familiar with the matter. At one briefing, according to this person, officials were told investigators are actively pursuing the notion that the plane was diverted "with the intention of using it later for another purpose."

Rolls-Royce, however, isn't talking on the record about what data it may or may not have received and Malaysian officials were quick to dismiss the WSJ report as inaccurate at a press conference today. Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, told reporters that the last technical data received from the plane was less than 30 minutes after takeoff. "That was the last transmission," he said. "It did not run beyond that."

For now, according to Malaysian officials in charge of the search effort, the focus remains primarily on two areas: Off the country's east coast in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea (where 26 of the 46 ships involved in the search are); and off the west coast in the the Strait of Malacca and Andaman Sea (where 17 of the ships are). "Our main effort has always been in South China Sea," Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defense minister and acting transport minister, told reporters Thursday, referring to the area northeast of where the plane took off and south of Vietnam.

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This post has been updated.