Malaysian Jet Search Zone Shrunk as Simulator Data Probed

 Authorities investigating the missing Malaysian jet are trying to retrieve deleted data on a flight simulator belonging to the pilot as the search in the southern Indian Ocean narrowed, following new analysis of the plane’s fuel reserves.

Malaysia has brought in local and international experts to examine the simulator, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said. Some data had been deleted and “forensic work” to retrieve it was under way, he said. The data log was cleared on Feb. 3, Khalid Abu Bakar, the country’s police chief, said today.

malaysianairlines_small2 Malaysian Jet Search Zone Shrunk as Simulator Data Probed

“The passengers, the pilots and the crew remain innocent until proven otherwise,” Hishammuddin said. “For the sake of their families, I ask that we refrain from any unnecessary speculation that might make an already difficult time even harder.”

The homes of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid were searched on March 15 after Prime Minister Najib Razak said the plane was intentionally diverted en route to Beijing on March 8. It lost contact and disappeared from radar screens less than an hour after it took off with Zaharie at the helm. Initial investigations indicated the co-pilot was last heard by air traffic controllers.

Grave Fears

An assessment by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board allowed the search to be focused on an area about the size of Italy, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in an e-mailed statement. That’s about half the size of the zone planned yesterday, said John Young, the agency’s general manager of emergency response.

A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft, which made the first sortie to the zone yesterday, covered about 65,000 square kilometers under good search conditions without seeing any signs of debris, he said.

“We still have grave fears for anyone that might have managed to escape the aircraft in the southern ocean,” he said in a video posted on the agency’s website. “It remains a big area.”

Another Australian Orion was being added to the search today alongside an Orion variant operated by the New Zealand Air Force and a U.S. P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane, for a total of four aircraft, Young said.

NTSB analysis on the plane’s fuel reserves and the distance it could have flown narrowed the search area to about 305,000 square kilometers (118,000 square miles).

After a futile search in the Andaman Sea that produced 400 radar contacts and no sign of aircraft debris or other clues, the U.S. Navy reassigned the P-8 Poseidon. It’s the U.S.’s top maritime-search plane, capable of flying for eight to nine hours at altitudes of 5,000 feet. It also has the ability to dip to 1,000 feet to get a closer look.

U.S. Satellites

The search for the Malaysian jet, which lost contact with air traffic control less than an hour after leaving Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. on March 8 en route to Beijing, is the longest in modern passenger-airline history. The previous record was the 10-day search for a Boeing Co. 737-400 operated by Indonesia’s PT Adam Skyconnection Airlines, which went missing off the coast of that country’s Sulawesi island Jan. 1, 2007.

The Boeing 777-200 plane operated by Malaysian Airline System Bhd. was carrying 49.1 metric tons of fuel when it took off, giving a total take-off weight of 223.5 tons, according to the Subang Jaya-based company.

Australia yesterday said it was searching an area in the southern Indian Ocean that’s about 1 1/2 times the size of California for the missing jet as Malaysia asked the U.S. to use its satellites to help in the search.

China, Kazakhstan

Malaysia, leading the multi-nation effort to find the aircraft, divided the search into a northern zone and a southern region, with a combined span of 2.25 million square nautical miles, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

China and Kazakhstan have agreed to lead the search areas closest to their countries in the northern zone. The U.S. has the best ability to assist in the southern corridor, he said.

Much of the area Australia is scouring is within the Roaring Forties, a region between the 40th and 50th degrees of latitude south known for strong winds and wave conditions, according to charts provided by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Off Course

Investigators are combing through data after the plane was deliberately steered off its course and disappeared from radar.

The jet made its last satellite contact at 8:11 a.m. on March 8, according to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Malaysian officials, who have said they can’t rule out hijacking or sabotage, are also exploring the possibility of a pilot suicide.

The plane’s transponder beacon, which helps radar locate aircraft more precisely, and a text-to-ground messaging system were shut before the plane turned off its course.

Satellite pings that weren’t turned off showed Flight 370 operated for almost seven hours after last making contact, Razak has said. That may have taken the plane more than 3,000 miles from where it was last tracked and pushed it to the limits of its fuel load, if it was airborne the whole period.

Malaysia today said it received some radar data, Hishammuddin said, without elaborating on whom it’s from and how it could affect the search.

Malaysia is assembling a team to send to Beijing to give briefings and updates to the families of the plane’s passengers, he said. Of the 239 people aboard the flight, 154 were from mainland China.