Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Why the confusion over how long the plane flew?

Malaysia officials denied a report that Flight 370 flew for four hours after disappearing. It was the second time in a day that authorities had rejected an apparent breakthrough.

Wong Maye-E/AP
Malaysia's Minister of Transport Hishamuddin Hussein takes questions from the media during a press conference about the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner MH370, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Sepang, Malaysia.

Back to square one.

Malaysian officials today categorically dismissed as false two potential leads that could have shed light on the fate of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and said investigators had made no progress in determining its fate. 

Six days after the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing suddenly dropped off the radar, with 239 passengers and crew aboard, its disappearance is one of the most mysterious incidents in modern aviation history. 

A report that data transmitted by the Boeing 777’s engines suggested that the plane might have flown for four hours after it disappeared were “inaccurate,” Transport Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein told reporters. 

And an image from a Chinese satellite, published online Wednesday, that appeared to show possible wreckage from the missing aircraft floating in the ocean “was released by mistake and did not indicate any debris from MH370,” Mr. Hishammuddin added.

“Until we have found debris I will never feel we have moved forward” in the investigation, he said. 

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed US investigators and national security officials, had reported that data automatically transmitted to the ground from the plane’s Rolls Royce engines indicated that the jet had flown for five hours. According to Malaysian aviation officials, MH370 disappeared from radar screens, and its transponder stopped transmitting, less than an hour after takeoff. The flight departed just after midnight local time. 

The report opened up the dramatic prospect that the plane had flown for several hours undetected in an unknown direction. 

But Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari said that he had contacted Boeing and Rolls Royce and that they “did not receive any further transmission beyond the transmission that was received at 01.07" on Saturday morning “which indicated that everything [on the plane] was performing normally.”

Neither Boeing nor Rolls Royce has commented on these conflicting accounts of their records.

Hishammuddin also refuted suggestions that Chinese satellite images had identified wreckage from the plane in the Gulf of Thailand, off the Vietnamese coast, where MH370 was last detected.

He said the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur had told him that “the publication of the satellite image was an accident.” Quoting from what he said was a note sent to him by the embassy, he said that “the [Chinese] government neither authorized nor endorsed the behavior that is now being investigated.”

There are now 43 ships and 40 planes involved in the search on both sides of the Malaysian peninsula, and Hishammuddin said that unless they find debris from the plane “we will extend our efforts” into a wider search area. The United States will send the world's most advanced maritime surveillance aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon, to join the search later this week.

Although the search is focused on the Gulf of Thailand and nearby South China Sea, ships and planes are also searching the Straits of Malacca and into the Andaman Sea because Malaysian military radar detected what might have been the plane turning back. Hishamuddin cautioned, however, that the radar “did not indicate what aircraft it was.”

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