Six days after it disappeared without trace, more confusion – not less – engulfs the fate of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 and her 239 passengers and crew.
At a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said a search involving 12 nations and more than 80 aircraft and planes had still failed to uncover any trace of the Boeing 777. “There is no real precedent for a situation like this. The plane vanished,” he said.
Mr Hussein strongly denied reports that data from the plane’s engines showed that it had flown for a further four hours from its last confirmed location and may have been intentionally diverted.
Earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported that investigators in the US were examining whether the missing plane was “intentionally diverted” from its planned route.
The report said US counter-terrorism officials were examining the possibility that the plane’s course had been changed “with the intention of using it later for another purpose” and that its transponders were intentionally turned off to avoid radar detection.
It said said data downloaded automatically from the plane’s engines, suggested the plane flew for a total of five hours. Its final confirmed location was at 1.31am last Saturday, about 40 minutes after it took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. At that point it was heading north-east across the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on what should have been a six-hour flight to Beijing.
If true, the information downloaded from the plane’s Rolls Royce engines as part of a routine maintenance and monitoring programme, suggested the plane could have flown on for up to 2,000 more miles and reached as far as northern India or even the north-west coast of Australia. It would expand the possible search area almost limitlessly.
But during a press conference on Thursday afternoon local time, Mr Hussein rejected the reports. He said experts from both Boeing and Rolls Royce were assisting the investigation and that the last transmission received from the engines was at 1.07am on Saturday morning. It had suggested everything was normal.
“Rolls Royce and Boeing teams are here in Kuala Lumpur and have worked with Malaysia Airlines investigation teams since Sunday,” he said. “This issue has never been raised. Since today’s media reports Malaysia Airlines has asked Rolls Royce and Boeing specifically about the data. As far as Rolls Royce and Boeing are concerned those reports are inaccurate.”
He added: “Whenever there any any details they must be corroborated.”
Mr Hussein also denied reports in the Malaysian media which claimed the police had raided the home of the plane’s main pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, to determine whether or not he was encountering any psychological problems.
Earlier this week, Malaysia’s police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said investigators were focussing on four areas - hijacking, sabotage, psychological problems and possible personal problems of the passengers or crew. But Mr Hussein said: “The pilot’s house has not been searched.”
Neither Rolls Royce or Boeing have yet publicly commented on the report. Bill O’Sullivan, a communications manager with Rolls Royce, told The Independent on Thursday morning that any statement would be sent out by email if the company had one to make.
The report in the Wall Street Journal said the data has led investigators in the US to pursue the prospect that the plane may have been diverted by a pilot or someone else. It is unclear whether the plane reached an alternate destination or if it crashed, potentially hundreds of miles from where an international search effort has been focused.
Six days after the plane went missing, most reports had suggested that terrorism or hijacking had been largely discounted. But the report said the new data raised a “host of new questions and possibilities about what happened” to the plane and those aboard.
The report said US investigators remained “fluid” as to the causes of the plane’s disappearance and that it remained unclear whether investigators had evidence indicating possible terrorism or espionage.
The flurry of claims and denials came as an effort to locate the plane spread out over more than 27,000 nautical square miles. Search planes had been dispatched to a site believed to be the location of where a Chinese government agency website said a satellite had photographed three “suspicious floating objects” on Sunday. It is unclear why it took China so long to share the information.
The location was close to where the plane lost contact with air traffic control but by early Thursday afternoon local time, nothing had been found at the spot. The Associated Press said the head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, had confirmed no debris had been located by the Vietnamese and Malaysian plans dispatched there.
“We are in the middle of a multinational search involving many countries and more than 80 ships and aircraft. This is a crisis situation. It is a very complex operation and it has not always been easy,” said Mr Hussein, the transport minister.
Earlier on Thursday, China continued to put pressure on Malaysia. Of the 239 people on board, more than 150 were from China. China has criticised Malaysia for the slow pace of the operation and what it has called conflicting information about the search.
Speaking in Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang, called for the “relevant party” step up coordination while China’s civil aviation chief. “We will not give up on any suspected clue that has been found,” he said. “This is an international and large-scale search operation involving many countries.”
The last definitive sighting on civilian radar screens of MH370 came at 1.31am on Saturday, less than an hour after the plane took. On Wednesday Rodzali Daud, the Malaysian air force chief, said a dot was plotted on military radar at 2.15 a.m., 200 miles north-west of Penang Island off Malaysia’s west coast at the northern tip of the Strait of Malacca.
But he stressed that there was no confirmation that the dot on the radar was Flight MH370. He said Malaysia was sharing the data with the US Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Security Board.
Malaysia Airlines has said that as a mark of respect to the passengers and crew on board MH370, the MH370 and MH371 flight codes are to be will be retired from Kuala Lumpur- Beijing-Kuala Lumpur route.