The British company Rolls Royce was tonight at the centre of growing confusion and mystery about the plight of missing Flight MH370 after it was claimed data sent from the plane’s engines suggested it had flown for a further four hours from its last known location.
Six days after the Malaysian Airlines plane disappeared, officials in Kuala Lumpur said they had still detected no trace of the jet or its 239 passengers and crew. The search operation, involving 12 nations, is to be enlarged yet again, this time pushing westwards towards Indian waters.
At a news conference on Thursday, Malaysia’s Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said a search involving more than 80 aircraft and planes had still failed to uncover any trace of the Boeing 777. “There is no real precedent for a situation like this. The plane vanished,” he said.
Mr Hussein strongly denied reports that data from the plane’s two Trent 800 engines, manufactured by Rolls Royce in Derby, showed that it had flown for a further four hours from where it was last located and may have been steered off course.
Earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported that investigators in the US were examining whether the missing plane was intentionally “diverted” from its planned route.
The report said US counter-terrorism officials were examining the possibility that the plane’s route had been changed “with the intention of using it later for another purpose” and that its transponders were intentionally turned off to avoid radar detection.
It said said data downloaded automatically as part of a routine maintenance and monitoring programme, suggested the plane flew for a total of five hours. Its final confirmed location was at 1.31am last Saturday, about 40 minutes after it took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. At that point it was heading north-east across the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on what should have been a six-hour flight to Beijing.
If true, the information would mean the plane could have flown on for up to 2,000 more miles and reached as far as India and Pakistan or even the north-west coast of Australia. It would expand the possible search area almost limitlessly.
By this stage in the investigation, most reports have suggested that terrorism or hijacking had been largely discounted. The report said the new data raised a “host of new questions and possibilities about what happened” to the plane and those aboard.
Mr Hussein rejected the report, saying experts from both Boeing and Rolls Royce were assisting the investigation and that the last transmission received from the engines was at 1.07am on Saturday morning. It had suggested everything was normal.
“Rolls Royce and Boeing teams are here in Kuala Lumpur and have worked with [Malaysia Airlines] investigation teams since Sunday,” he said. “This issue has never been raised. Since today’s media reports [Malaysia Airlines] has asked Rolls Royce and Boeing specifically about the data. As far as Rolls Royce and Boeing are concerned those reports are inaccurate.”
However, when asked if it was possible that the plane had kept flying for several more hours, the minister said: “Of course, we can’t rule anything out. This is why we have extended the search. We are expanding our search into the Andaman Sea.”
Mr Hussein also denied reports in the Malaysian media which claimed police had raided the home of the plane’s main pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, to determine whether or not he was encountering any psychological problems. “The pilot’s house has not been searched,” he said.
Neither Rolls Royce or Boeing have yet commented on the report. Bill O’Sullivan, a communications manager with Rolls Royce, told The Independent that any statement would be sent out by email if the company had one to make. A Boeing spokesman, John Dern, said it was up to the Malaysian authorities to make any comments about the investigation.
The dramatic claim and the strident denial mean that almost a week after the plane disappeared, there is more, rather than less, confusion about may have happened.
These developments came as an effort to locate the plane spread out over more than 27,000 nautical square miles. Search planes were dispatched to a site believed to be the location of where a Chinese government agency website said a satellite had photographed three “suspicious floating objects” on Sunday.
The location was close to where the plane lost contact with air traffic control but by early Thursday afternoon local time, nothing had been found at the spot. “We are in the middle of a multinational search involving many countries and more than 80 ships and aircraft. This is a crisis situation. It is a very complex operation and it has not always been easy,” said Mr Hussein, the transport minister.
Earlier on Thursday, China continued to put pressure on Malaysia. Of the 239 people on board, more than 150 were from China. China has criticised Malaysia for the slow pace of the operation and what it has called conflicting information about the search.
Speaking in Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang, called for the “relevant party” step up coordination while China’s civil aviation chief. “We will not give up on any suspected clue that has been found,” he said. “This is an international and large-scale search operation involving many countries.”
The last definitive sighting on civilian radar screens of MH370 came at 1.31am on Saturday, less than an hour after the plane took. On Wednesday Rodzali Daud, the Malaysian air force chief, said a dot was plotted on military radar at 2.15 a.m., 200 miles north-west of Penang Island off Malaysia’s west coast at the northern tip of the Strait of Malacca.
But he stressed that there was no confirmation that the dot on the radar was Flight MH370. He said Malaysia was sharing the data with the US Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Security Board.
Malaysia Airlines has said that as a mark of respect to the passengers and crew on board MH370, the MH370 and MH371 flight codes are to be will be retired from Kuala Lumpur- Beijing-Kuala Lumpur route.
The search for MH370 will push westwards into the Andaman Sea. India announced it will send three ships and three aircraft to help in the search. A spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, said two Dornier aircraft and a helicopter were being dispatched
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