U.S. officials told NBC News on Friday that the missing Malaysia Airlines jet made contact with communications satellites for hours after it lost touch with radar, and that they are confident the plane turned from its flight path.
The communications company Inmarsat said that its satellites picked up “routine, automated signals” from the jet during its flight from Kuala Lumpur but did not provide further details.
By default, the company’s satellites send a “ping” once an hour to devices registered with Inmarsat, and active devices send back a “ping” to the nearest satellite. Most wide-body jets carry Inmarsat equipment.
That information can be used to determine speed and altitude, and could be crunched to at least narrow the geographic range where a plane might be. Inmarsat said its information had been shared with Malaysian investigators.
The U.S. officials said the communication was four “pings” over a period of hours after the last ground contact with the plane, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
U.S. investigators have said that they are working with their counterparts in Malaysia to analyze the data.
The information suggests that “at least the aircraft was operational” and did not suffer a midair catastrophe at the point between Malaysia and Thailand where it last made contact with the ground, an air-disaster analyst said.
“I’m personally convinced right now, based on what I’ve seen — it’ll take a lot of convincing otherwise — that something was done intentionally,” said the analyst, Greg Feith, a former investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
But he cautioned, in a probe that is entering its second week and has been hobbled by one false lead after another: “Anything is a possibility at this point.”
Caution from Malaysia
Malaysian authorities said that they were working with experts from around the world, including the United States, but could not confirm that the plane kept traveling for some time after it lost contact with the ground.
China said Friday that it detected a seismic event — the equivalent of a 2.7-magnitude earthquake — close to where the plane lost contact. But the U.S. Geological Survey said it was an area were a “handful of great earthquakes” have happened in the past decade.
The Reuters news service, citing two sources familiar with the Malaysian probe, reported that investigators were focusing on foul play.
Reuters reported that investigators suspect the plane was following a course toward the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal and then the Indian Ocean. The plane had enough fuel to fly for hundreds of miles.
Again, the Malaysian authorities seemed hesitant. Hishammuddin Hussein, the country’s transport minister, said he could not confirm the last heading of the plane or whether sabotage was a focus of the investigation.
“A normal investigation becomes narrower with time,” he said, “but this is not a normal investigation.” He said that in this case the information has forced investigators to look “further and further afield.”
Thirteen countries, four dozen aircraft and 57 ships are now taking part in the search, he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
Search goes on
U.S. surveillance aircraft hunting for the missing jet were over the southern Bay of Bengal on Friday, much farther west than in previous searches. A P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft was flying missions over the area, to the east of India.
The “search box” is several hundred miles west of the Strait of Malacca, the shipping lane off the west coast of Malaysia that has been one of the two focus points for investigators. The other is to the east of Malaysia, in the South China Sea.
An American destroyer, the USS Kidd, is on standby in the search area and, beginning Saturday, will search the southern portion of the Bay of Bengal. It will be joined by a P-8 anti-submarine warplane, loaded with surface and underwater search technology, that will also begin flights over that search area on Saturday.
The U.S. military officials stressed that the search locations were requested by the Malaysian government and not the result of information or intelligence that the U.S. military has developed.
Feith, the former NTSB investigator, said in an NBC News webcast that the disappearance can be considered unprecedented.
He said he would focus on who would have had access to the flight controls, including the crew, because it would have taken “some technical skill” to fly it after turning off the transponder and other regular communications with the ground.
“It’s not like somebody who learned how to fly on a Microsoft simulator went into the cockpit,” he said.
— Tom Costello and Jay Blackman of NBC News contributed to this report.