Two relatively late-breaking Friday reports about the apparent flight path of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 shed significant light on the evidence being used by investigators to find the missing jetliner—but those details can be used to paint any number of pictures about the possible fate of the 777 aircraft. While the working theory appears to still be some sort of criminal activity, less sinister causes have not yet been ruled out either.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of the reports, allow me to offer a quick disclaimer: To date, on-background reporting has largely been out in front of the on-the-record briefings offered by the Malaysian officials leading the search, but we're still dealing with complicated technical information that is being relayed second- and third-hand here. It's certainly not hard to imagine a nuance being lost in translation or in the game of telephone, so at best we're likely only getting a rough sketch of what authorities actually know/believe they know. OK, you've been warned.
The first report comes via the New York Times, which reported that the jetliner experienced "significant changes in altitude" and also altered its course more than once after it lost contact with ground control less than an hour after takeoff:
Radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appear to show the missing airliner climbing to 45,000 feet, above the approved altitude limit for a Boeing 777-200, soon after it disappeared from civilian radar and made a sharp turn to the west, according to a preliminary assessment by a person familiar with the data.
The radar track, which the Malaysian government has not released but says it has provided to the United States and China, then shows the plane descending unevenly to an altitude of 23,000 feet, below normal cruising levels, as it approached the densely populated island of Penang, one of the country’s largest. There, the plane turned from a southwest-bound course, climbed to a higher altitude and flew northwest over the Strait of Malacca toward the Indian Ocean. ...
The combination of altitude changes and at least two significant course corrections could have a variety of explanations, including an intentional diversion by a pilot or a hijacker, or uneven flying because [of] a disabled crew.
Those following each twist and turn of this story will remember that Reuters reported earlier in the day that the airliner's route took it between established navigational waypoints, suggesting "that it was either being flown by the pilots or someone with knowledge of those waypoints."
The NYT claims investigators have also examined data transmitted from the plane's engines that show the aircraft at one point appeared to plummet 40,000-odd feet in the span of one minute—but the investigators are said to doubt that info because it "would likely have taken longer to fall such a distance," in the words of the Times. Given that, it's obviously difficult to put tons of faith in the other data acquired by the same means.
CNN, meanwhile, reports that a classified analysis of electronic and satellite data calculated that the flight ultimately "likely crashed into the Indian Ocean on one of two possible flight paths," although the report quickly hedged those bets with a third theory:
One flight path suggests the plane crashed into the Bay of Bengal off the coast of India, and the other has it traveling southeast and crashing in the Indian Ocean, according to the analysis. Yet another theory is taking shape about what might have happened to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Maybe it landed in a remote Indian Ocean island chain.
As Jeff Wise has already explained in Slate, just because the 777 is a very large plane that usually lands at large, well-developed airports doesn't mean it isn't capable of landing in much more primitive conditions, "including a runway of hard dirt, a highway, or even (under the right conditions, and in the hands of a very skilled pilot) a paved strip of barely 3,000 feet in length—about the size of what you would find at a modest municipal airport in the United States."
Over the past 24 hours, the attention has largely shifted to the Indian Ocean in general, and to the idea of a criminal act in specifc—be it hijacking, piracy, or something else—as being responsible for the disappearance of the craft. For now, however, until authorities find the plane—and perhaps a good time after that—all we're left with is speculation.
This post has been updated.