Breaking News. Flight MH370: The Mystery Deepens

Malaysia location map

After a flurry of reports and speculation on what may have happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 — including sightings of oil streaks and satellite images of three pieces of large debris floating in the South China Sea — there is now a whole raft of new theories on what may have happened to the missing airliner.

But first some breaking news.

The New York Times has just reported:

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 experienced significant changes in altitude after it lost contact with ground control, and altered its course more than once as if still under the command of a pilot, American officials and others familiar with the investigation said Friday.

The “significant” change in altitude would include the jetliner climbing to 45,000 feet, “above the approved altitude limit for a Boeing 777-200, soon after it disappeared from civilian radar” and making a sharp turn to the west, and the plane then descending “unevenly” to 23,000 feet, “below normal cruising levels, as it approached the densely populated island of Penang, one of the country’s largest.”

There, the plane “turned from a southwest-bound course, climbed to a higher altitude and flew northwest over the Strait of Malacca toward the Indian Ocean,” according to the Times.

The Times says that data transmitted from the plane’s Rolls-Royce engines shows the aircraft “descending 40,000 feet in the space of a minute, according to a senior American official briefed on the investigation.” But, the Times adds, “investigators do not believe the readings are accurate because the aircraft would most likely have taken longer to fall such a distance.”

Read more on this breaking news here.

As to the aforementioned new theories and information, Reuters reports that military radar data suggests that the jetliner “was deliberately flown hundreds of miles off course, heightening suspicions of foul play among investigators.”

According to Reuters, sources “familiar with investigations” into the disappearance of the Boeing 777 say that analysis of the radar data suggests the plane “diverted from its intended northeast route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and flew west instead, using airline flight corridors normally employed for routes to the Middle East and Europe,” and that the flight may have been “following a route between navigational waypoints when it was last plotted on military radar…flying toward India’s Andaman Islands, a chain of isles between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.”

Apparently, this development is leading experts to believe that the aircraft was “either being flown by the pilots or someone with knowledge of those waypoints.” Reuters adds that a source, a senior Malaysian police official, said, “What we can say is we are looking at sabotage, with hijack still on the cards.”

The Daily Mail reports that “US officials believe that two communications systems aboard Malaysia Airlines flight 370 were shut down separately, 14 minutes apart – which indicates the plane did not come down because of a sudden catastrophic failure,” and that, according to investigators, the separate, systematic shutdowns could have been a “deliberate act.”

However, despite the shutdown of the two devices the plane apparently still sent signals to a satellite in the form of intermittent “pings” that could have provided the plane’s location, speed and altitude for at least five hours after it disappeared from radar, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal:

The final ping was sent from over water, at what one of these people called a normal cruising altitude. They added that it was unclear why the pings stopped. One of the people, an industry official, said it was possible that the system sending them had been disabled by someone on board.

The Daily Mail reports that the final message sent to satellites – operated by British telecommunications company Inmarsat – was over water at what is believed to have been a normal cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.

The Mail says that the new claims of possible foul play have turned attention back on to the captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, citing the revelation that Fariq, in 2011, “while on another flight with a different officer…had invited two young South African women into the cockpit during a flight from Thailand to Malaysia against all rules.”

Finally, the New York Times has a detailed report on the system that sends out those “pings,” or keep alive” signals, and the significance of those signals.

Inmarsat, the company that received and recorded those signals from the Boeing 777 says that such information “could prove to be a valuable break in helping narrow the frustrating search for the plane” that disappeared from radar screens a week ago.

The Times:

David Coiley, a vice president of Inmarsat, a British satellite telecommunications provider, said the missing plane had been equipped with a signaling system from the company that sends out a “keep-alive message” to establish that the plane’s communications system is still switched on.

The plane sent out a series of such messages after civilian radar lost contact, he said. Those messages later stopped, but he declined to specify precisely when or how many messages had been received. Mr. Coiley said Inmarsat was sharing the information with the airline and investigators

Read more here.

In the meantime, navies and air forces of several nations continue the search for the missing airliner. Photo below shows the Malaysian Navy ship KD Terengganu and a U.S. Navy MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from the USS Pinckney conducting a coordinated air and sea search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet in the Gulf of Thailand, March 12, 2014. (Photo DOD)

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The U.S. Navy vessel USS Kidd has now moved to replace USS Pinckney in the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Additionally, a P-8A Poseidon designed for long-range maritime patrol, based at Kadena Air Base, Japan, is aiding in the search for the missing Malaysian airliner.

P-8A Poseidon

A P-8A Poseidon sits on the flightline at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Salt Cebe.

Lead image: DOD

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Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist