AN INTERNATIONAL search for the missing Malaysian jet liner has expanded further into the Indian Ocean and across remote uninhabited islands, amid signs the aircraft may have flown on for hours after its last contact with air traffic control nearly a week ago.
Reports have suggested the Malaysia Airlines plane continued to send signals to a satellite for five hours after the aircraft went missing, raising the possibility it could have flown far from current search areas.
This development has opened speculation over whether one of the pilots, or a passenger with flying experience, could have planned to hijack the plane, kidnap the passengers or commit suicide by plunging the aircraft into the sea.
Last night a US official said investigators were examining the possibility that it may have been “an act of piracy.”
The official said key evidence for “human intervention” in the plane’s disappearance was that contact with its transponder stopped about a dozen minutes before a messaging system quit. He added that it was also possible the plane may have landed somewhere.
The Beijing-bound Boeing 777-200 last communicated with air traffic base stations east of Malaysia in the South China Sea, which for the last six days has the main focus of the search.
Planes and ships have also been searching the Strait of Malacca west of Malaysia because of a blip on military radar, which suggested the plane might have turned in that direction after the last confirmed contact.
Aviation experts said if the plane had disintegrated during flight or had suffered some other catastrophic failure, all signals – messages sent to the satellite, the data messages and the transponder – would be expected to stop at the same time. Investigators said a pilot or a passenger with technical expertise may have switched off the transponder in the hope of flying undetected. They added that only a skilled person could navigate the Boeing 777 after its last confirmed location.
Yesterday India used heat sensors on flights over hundreds of uninhabited Andaman Sea islands and is today expected to expand its search farther west into the Bay of Bengal.
The Indian-controlled archipelago that stretches south of Myanmar contains 572 islands, covering an area of 720-by-52 kilometers. Only 37 of the islands are inhabited, with the rest covered in dense forests.
Investigators said 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.
Indian military spokesman Harmeet Singh said yesterday: “This operation is like finding a needle in a haystack,”
Malaysian transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday he could not confirm if investigators were focusing on sabotage.
“A normal investigation becomes narrower with time… as new information focuses the search, but this is not a normal investigation. In this case, the information has forced us to look further and further afield.”