By Barbara Demick
BEIJING — The search for elusive Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 shifted to waters around India based on suggestions the aircraft may have flown longer and farther than previously thought.
After six days of fruitless searches in the Gulf of Thailand, near the original flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, investigators are exploring theories that the plane flew as long as four hours after it lost contact with civilian radar at 1:30 a.m. Saturday.
“An additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean, and we are consulting with international partners about the appropriate assets to deploy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday.
A Pentagon official, meanwhile, told ABC News that the U.S. destroyer Kidd, one of the Navy vessels participating in the search, was being moved at the request of Malaysia toward the meeting point of the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, west of Malaysia.
“We have an indication the plane went down in the Indian Ocean,” the unnamed official reported told ABC.
Conflicting reports suggest that the Boeing 777, which carried 239 passengers and crew members, sent out “pings” to communications satellites suggesting it was still flying after its apparent disappearance from civilian radar, four hours longer than previously thought.
If in fact the Boeing 777 flew for five hours from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, it could have traveled 2,200 nautical miles, as far as the India-Pakistan border.
Malaysian officials at a news conference Thursday denied a report in the Wall Street Journal quoting a U.S. official suggesting the plane was diverted by a hijacker or crew member “with the intention of using it later for another purpose.”
Nevertheless, the Malaysians said they had expanded the search-and-rescue operation into India and its surrounding waters, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and the Arabian Sea.
The latest twist added to the frustration in a 12-nation search operation spread across much of Southeast Asia, involving more than 80 ships, aircraft and satellites.
Malaysian rescue planes early Thursday rushed to a location over the Gulf of Thailand, where a Chinese satellite had detected three large floating objects. However, no sign of the plane or the debris was discovered in the area, about halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, said Malaysia’s acting transportation minister, Hishammuddin Hussein. He said the satellite photos had been released by a Chinese defense agency “by mistake.”
“We have looked at every lead, and in most cases, I believe all the cases we pursued, we have not found anything positive,” Hishammuddin said.
With the majority of the passengers being Chinese nationals, the government in Beijing is expressing increasing frustration at the lack of progress in the search.
“All the countries involved must demand that the Malaysians disclose all the information they have. The information they’ve released so far is implausible. It has caused a lot of confusion and has led to people looking in the wrong place,” said Hu Hongjun, a professor of civil aviation at Tianjin University.
The search effort had focused on the Gulf of Thailand, which includes the missing jetliner’s intended flight path. But the Malaysians have conceded that the plane could have veered off course because their military radar detected an unidentified aircraft over the Strait of Malacca, off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, a position that would be 330 miles off the aircraft’s intended course. Malaysian military officials said it was unclear whether the unidentified craft was Flight 370.
Among the various hypotheses under investigation are that the pilots attempted to return to Kuala Lumpur or find another airport, that they passed out from lack of oxygen after a technical malfunction or sabotage while the airplane kept heading west, and that there was a hijacking attempt by a passenger or one of the crew members.
Satellite imagery taken of the area the night of the jet’s disappearance detected no flash that would indicate a midair explosion.
Rolls-Royce, the maker of the plane’s engines, confirmed that its engines automatically transmit data at 30-minute intervals to a monitoring center in Derby, England, but it declined to release details.
“The last transmission of engine data was at 1:07 a.m. It did not go on longer,” Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.
Industry executives say the incident shows the urgent need for better systems to keep track of aircraft.
“We can track our cars and our kids’ cell phones, but there is no way of tracking planes as they fly around the world,” said Don Thoma, president and chief executive of Aireon, which is developing a satellite-based surveillance system.