Malaysia Widens Hunt as India Questions Andaman Sea Focus

 Malaysia widened the search for the missing Flight 370, pushing the hunt farther east and west, while India questioned the idea of a crash in the Andaman Sea region that was a focus of earlier patrols.

Continuous radar coverage close to the Andaman Islands would have picked up the plane, and India’s navy is confident the Boeing Co. 777-200 wasn’t in the area, said a naval official who wasn’t authorized to comment publicly about the case. India said it began checks there yesterday after a tip from Malaysia.

The Andaman Sea surveillance had opened a new front for investigators as signs mounted that the plane doubled back on its Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route and possibly flew for hours after controllers lost contact almost a week ago. Today, Malaysia said it extended the search farther east into the South China Sea and to the west into the Indian Ocean.

asiacrash Malaysia Widens Hunt as India Questions Andaman Sea Focus

“A normal investigation becomes narrower with time, as new information focuses the search,” Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in Kuala Lumpur. “But this is not a normal investigation. In this case, the information we have forces us to look further and further afield.”

Communications stopped with the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. jet carrying 239 people as it crossed the Gulf of Thailand toward Vietnam early on March 8. The disappearance baffled authorities, spurred a multinational air-and-sea recovery effort and left relatives in agony over the unknown fate of the passengers and crew.

Five Hours

A satellite transmitter on the 777 was active for about five hours, indicating the plane was operational after its transponder shut off less than an hour after takeoff, said three U.S. government officials. With no evidence of pilot error or mechanical failure, U.S. investigators are treating the case as air piracy, though it remains unclear by whom, one person said.

Investigators are studying four or five scenarios, including an explosion, intentional acts and actions performed under duress, Hishammuddin said. The possibility of pilot and crew involvement is also being explored, he said.

India added a new search zone, covering about 9,000 square kilometers (3,475 square miles) along the Chennai coast in the Bay of Bengal, at Malaysia’s request. The latest patrol area is a strip measuring 15 kilometers long by 600 miles wide, according to an Indian navy statement.

Sea Search

Surface vessels and aircraft also continued to scour waters east of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the navy said in the statement, even as the naval official cast doubt on the possibility that Flight 370 could have reached the area undetected.

The region is a pivotal shipping route, and is heavily patrolled and monitored by radar to prevent pirate attacks, the naval official said. The navy had said yesterday it dispatched forces there after receiving unspecified information from Malaysia.

The Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal are on the opposite side of Malaysia both from Flight 370’s intended path and from the initial search areas in the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea. Malaysia said the hunt for the plane now involves 57 ships and 48 aircraft.

“We want nothing more than to find the plane as quickly as possible,” Hishammuddin said. “But the circumstances have forced us to widen our search.”

Satellite Links

Specialists from the U.K. and Rolls-Royce Plc have said they are studying the possibility of satellite communication with the aircraft and will share their findings with Malaysia, Civil Aviation Chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said.

The 777 can cruise at 500 miles an hour or more, meaning it may have flown for as far as 2,500 miles beyond its last point of contact if it was intact and had enough fuel.

The satellite communications came from an onboard monitoring system that, if fully activated, can send data about how the plane’s equipment is working to Boeing, according to the person familiar with the equipment.

The data doesn’t necessarily indicate the jet was flying the whole time. It may be possible for the system to operate if the 777 was on the ground, the person said. It probably can’t operate following a crash, especially on the water where components probably would sink, the person said.

While Malaysian Air never subscribed to the Boeing program, meaning the system didn’t transmit detailed information about the flight to the planemaker, it was in an idle position of sorts and periodically sent a pulse to a satellite.

Routine Signals

Inmarsat Plc, the London-based satellite operator, picked up “routine, automated signals” from Flight 370, according to a statement e-mailed by Jonathan Sinnatt, a spokesman. He declined to elaborate.

Inmarsat shared its information with SITA, the main carrier in that region for land- and satellite-based message traffic between aircraft and ground personnel. SITA in turn shared the data with Malaysian Airlines, he said.

SITA supplies communications services to Malaysia Air and is “supporting the airline and all the relevant authorities” in the investigation, a spokeswoman, Susan Brown, said. She declined to comment further about the case.

Radar signals sent from the ground continued to reflect back from Flight 370 after its transponder went dead, said the people. After the transponder shut off, making the 777 harder to follow on radar, the plane turned left toward the west instead of continuing on toward Beijing to the north.

Indonesia Radar

Indonesia had no military radar reports of objects passing through its territory without identification on March 8, said Hadi Tjahjanto, a spokesman for the Indonesian air force.

U.S. investigators have been studying a radar blip detected hundreds of miles west of the plane’s intended route, in the area of the Malacca Strait, about 2:15 a.m. local time March 8, about 45 minutes after the last transponder signal.

The aircraft’s transponder normally sends signals to ground radar stations making it easier to follow and providing other information, such as its identity and altitude. While it’s possible for the unit to malfunction or be accidentally switched off, it is highly suspicious for the device to fail at the same time a plane makes an abrupt change of course.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Kidd arrived in the northwestern section of the Malacca Strait and will continue to assist Malaysian authorities, according to a statement from Lieutenant David Levy, a spokesman for the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Also on the scene is a P-3C Orion patrol plane, which flew a search mission in the area today without result, Levy said.

Another U.S. aircraft, a P-8A Poseidon, is due to join the hunt tomorrow, Levy said.