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Hunt on east coast, focus on foul play

March 14: India has extended the search for Flight MH370 to its entire eastern coast following a request from the Malaysian government today as investigations focused more on a suspicion of foul play.

In what may prove the first big break in helping narrow the frustrating search for the plane with 239 people aboard, a satellite communications company said “live” ping signals after the flight vanished could be analysed to help estimate its location.

Inmarsat, a Britain-based satellite communications provider of systems to ships and airplanes, had equipment aboard the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 jetliner.

“It (the signal) does allow us to determine where the airplane is relative to the satellite,” said David Coiley, the vice-president of the company in charge of the aviation business. He likened the signals to the “noises you might hear when you put your cellphone next to a radio or a television speaker”.

Coiley said Inmarsat was sharing information with the airline and investigators but would not comment further on that information.

A search fleet of over 100 ships and spotter planes from 13 nations is combing a dramatically enlarged area stretching into the Indian Ocean.

India had deployed ships, planes and helicopters from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The defence ministry said the Eastern Naval Command would also search across a new area measuring 15km by 600km along the Chennai coast in the Bay of Bengal. The shape of this area, located 900km west of Port Blair, suggested the search was focusing on a narrow flight corridor.

A trail of military radar data suggests the plane may have flown far to the west of the Malaysian Peninsula after it disappeared, intensifying speculation that it might have been a victim of a hijacking or some deliberate action involving the pilot or crew.

Two sources told Reuters an unidentified aircraft that investigators suspect was the missing plane appeared to be following a commonly used navigational route when it was last spotted.

That course headed into the Andaman Sea and towards the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. The course could only have been set deliberately, either by flying the Boeing jet manually or by programming the auto-pilot.

The route is also taken by commercial planes flying from Southeast Asia to West Asia or Europe.

The new version of events, which the Malaysian authorities described this evening as “unverified”, would suggest that the plane spent some time after its disappearance able to function, in the hands of an experienced pilot and deliberately not conveying its location to air traffic control.

“What we can say is we are looking at sabotage, with hijack still on the cards,” said a senior Malaysian police official.

The fact that the plane — if it was MH370 — had lost contact with air traffic control and was invisible to civilian radar suggested someone on board had turned off its communication systems, two sources said. But whoever did that may not have realised that the Boeing included a piece of technology that allows it to transmit and receive a stream of flight-related data.

Aviation industry sources in Malaysia and Singapore said police investigations into the pilot and his younger co-pilot had been expanded to include individuals with whom the two men had previously trained or worked.

Malaysian authorities said they had not ruled out a hijacking, but they had not yet confirmed the reports of the radar data, and were not certain that the trail came from the missing flight.

Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said that he would not discuss when or whether they had information about the alleged signals sent to satellites. He hoped to have “something conclusive” within a couple of days.

However, he said that there were a number of scenarios in which the plane’s transponders were shut down, including the possibility that they were turned off “intentionally”, they were switched of “under duress”, or it could have been the result of an explosion.

If the jetliner did stray into the Indian Ocean, a vast expanse with depths of more than 23,000 feet, the task faced by searchers would become dramatically more difficult. Winds and currents could shift any surface debris tens of nautical miles within hours, sharply widening the search area with each passing day.

An already difficult search task has been complicated in some areas by a choking haze caused by burning forest and farmland that has enveloped much of Malaysia and spilled into the Strait of Malacca. The haze, exacerbated by a prolonged dry spell, has reached hazardous levels in several spots.

“Ships alone are not going to get you that coverage, helicopters are barely going to make a dent in it and only a few countries fly P-3s (long-range search aircraft),” William Marks, spokesperson for the US Seventh Fleet, said.

THE THREE SIGNALS

The three types of signals planes give off, and how they relate to the missing jetliner

TRANSPONDERS

Transponders, an abbreviation of transmitter- responder, are electronic devices that transmit information on the plane’s identity when they receive a signal from air traffic control radar. All commercial aircraft use them. Transponders can be turned off by pilots
lRelevance: The missing jet’s transponder last communicated with Malaysian civilian radar about an hour after takeoff

Acars

The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars) is a data link system used to transmit short messages such as weather updates and status reports between aircraft and ground stations via radio or satellite

Relevance: According to a US official, Acars messages sent by the missing plane continued after its transponder went silent, although he wasn’t certain for how long

SATELLITE SIGNALS

Boeing offers a satellite service that can receive data during a flight on how the aircraft is functioning and relay the information to the plane’s home base. The idea is to provide information before the plane lands on whether maintenance work or repairs are needed. Even if an airline does not subscribe to the service, planes still periodically send automated signals — or pings — to the satellite seeking to establish contact

Relevance: Malaysia Airlines did not subscribe to the satellite service. The US official said automated pings were received from the jetliner for four hours after it lost contact,
indicating it probably flew for hundreds of kilometres beyond its last confirmed sighting on radar.

But if the system had a back-up battery, it could have kept trying to transmit after the jet had landed somewhere, and in certain circumstances, even after a crash.

Source: AP and NYTNS