Mystery Malaysia flight may have been hundreds of miles off course

Malaysia Plane Off Course

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was hundreds of miles off course, traveling in the opposite direction from its original destination and had stopped sending identifying transponder codes before it disappeared, a senior Malaysian Air Force official told CNN Tuesday.

If correct, these are ominous signs that could call into question whether someone in the cockpit might have deliberately steered the plane away from its intended destination, a former U.S. aviation investigator said.

“This kind of deviation in course is simply inexplicable,” said Paul Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

However, veteran pilot Kit Darby, president of Aviation Information Resources, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that mechanical problems could still explain everything: A power failure would have turned off the main transponder and its backup, and the plane could have flown for more than an hour, he said.

CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes said the news “still leaves mechanical, terrorism (and) other issues as much in the air as they were before.”

According to the Malaysian Air Force official, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, the plane’s transponder apparently stopped working at about the time flight controllers lost contact with it, near the coast of Vietnam.

The Malaysian Air Force lost track of the plane over Pulau Perak, a tiny island in the Straits of Malacca — many hundreds of miles from the usual flight path for aircraft traveling between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, the official said.

If the data cited by the source is correct, the aircraft was flying away from Beijing and on the opposite side of the Malay Peninsula from its scheduled route.

Earlier, the head of the international police organization Interpol said that his agency increasingly believed the incident was not related to terrorism.

“The more information we get, the more we’re inclined to conclude that it was not a terrorist incident,” Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said at a news conference in Lyon, France.

Among the evidence pointing in that direction, Noble said: news from Malaysian authorities that one of two people said to be traveling on stolen passports, an Iranian, was trying to travel to his mother in Germany.

Further, there’s no evidence to suggest either was connected to any terrorist organizations, according to Malaysian investigators.

However, CIA Director John Brennan said his agency is not yet willing to discount the possibility of a terror link in what he called a “very disturbing” mystery.

“No, we’re not ruling it out. Not at all,” he said Tuesday at a Council on Foreign Relations event.

The two passengers who have dominated headlines the last two days entered Malaysia using valid Iranian passports, Noble said at a news conference. But they used stolen Austrian and Italian passports to board the missing Malaysian plane, he said.

Noble gave their names and ages as Pouri Nourmohammadi, 18, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29.

Malaysian police had earlier identified Nourmohammadi, using a slightly different name and age, and said they believed he was trying to migrate to Germany.

Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar of the Royal Malaysian Police said it doesn’t appear the younger Iranian posed a threat.

“We have been checking his background. We have also checked him with other police organizations of his profile, and we believe that he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group,” Khalid said.

After he failed to arrive in Frankfurt, the final destination of his ticket, his mother contacted authorities, Khalid said. According to ticketing records, the ticket to Frankfurt was booked under the stolen Austrian passport.

CNN obtained an iReport photo of the two men with two of their friends, believed to have been taken Saturday before the plane disappeared. In it, they are posing with the two others, whose faces CNN has blurred to protect their identities.

The bigger piece of the puzzle

The identification of one of the men helps peel away a thin layer of the mystery surrounding the passenger jet, which disappeared about an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

But in the bigger puzzle of the missing plane’s whereabouts, there were no reports of progress Tuesday.

Every lead that has raised hopes of tracing the commercial jet and the 239 people on board has so far petered out.

“Time is passing by,” a middle-aged man shouted at an airline agent in Beijing on Tuesday. His son, he said, was one of the passengers aboard the plane.

Most of those on the flight were Chinese. And for their family members, the wait has been agonizing.

There were also three U.S. citizens on the plane, including Philip Wood.

“As of yet, we know as much as everyone else,” Wood’s brother, Tom, told CNN’s “AC360″ Monday. “It seems to be getting more bizarre, the twists in the story, where they can’t find anything. So we’re just relying on faith.”

The challenge facing those involved in the huge, multinational search is daunting; the area of sea they are combing is vast.

And they still don’t know if they’re looking in the right place.

“As we enter into Day 4, the aircraft is yet to be found,” Malaysia Airlines said in a statement released Tuesday.

Days, weeks or even months

Over the past few days, search teams have been scouring tens of thousands of square miles of ocean.

They have also been searching off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, in the Strait of Malacca, and north into the Andaman Sea. The airline said Tuesday that authorities are still investigating the possibility that the plane tried to turn back toward Kuala Lumpur.

The search also encompasses the land in between the two areas of sea.

But it could be days, weeks or even months before the searchers find anything that begins to explain what happened to the plane, which disappeared early Saturday en route to Beijing.

In the case of Air France Flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic in 2009, it took five days just to find the first floating wreckage.

And it was nearly two years before investigators found the bulk of the French plane’s wreckage and the majority of the bodies of the 228 people on board, about 12,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.

The Gulf of Thailand, the area where the missing Malaysian plane was last detected, is much shallower, with a maximum depth of only 260 feet and an average depth of about 150 feet.

“If the aircraft is in the water, it should make recovery easier than the long and expensive effort to bring up key parts of the Air France plane,” Bill Palmer, an Airbus A330 captain for a major airline, wrote in an opinion article for CNN.

But if Flight 370 went down farther west, it could have ended up in the much deeper waters of the Andaman Sea.

No possibilities ruled out

Aviation officials say they haven’t ruled out any possibilities in the investigation so far. It’s hard for them to reach any conclusions until they find the plane, along with its voice and data recorders.

Malaysian police, who are tasked with looking at whether any criminal cause was at play, are focusing on four particular areas, Khalid said Tuesday: hijacking, sabotage, psychological problems of the passengers and crew, and personal problems among the passengers and crew.

He said police were going through the profiles of all the passengers and crew members.

Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told CNN’s Jim Clancy that those involved in the search for the plane are determined to carry on.

“We just have to be more resolved and pay more attention to every single detail,” he said Tuesday. “It must be there somewhere. We have to find it.”

‘Crucial time’ passing

But if the plane fell into the sea, the more time that goes by, the harder the task becomes as ocean currents move things around.

“Crucial time is passing,” David Gallo, with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday. “That search area — that haystack — is getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Gallo described what will happen once some debris from the aircraft is found, though he stressed there’s still no evidence the plane hit the water.

“Once a piece of the debris is found — if it did impact on the water — then you’ve got to backtrack that debris to try to find the ‘X marks the spot’ on where the plane actually hit the water, because that would be the center of the haystack.

“And in that haystack you’re trying to find bits of that needle — in fact, in the case of the flight data recorders, you’re looking for a tiny little bit of that needle,” he said.

Technology put to use

Countries involved in the search have deployed sophisticated technology to help try to track down the plane.

China has adjusted the commands for as many as 10 satellites in orbit so that they can assist with weather monitoring, communications and other aspects of the search, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.

And the United States has put a range of naval technology to use in the search.

That includes a Navy P-3C Orion aircraft, which can cover about 1,000 to 1,500 square miles every hour, according to the U.S. 7th Fleet.

The Orion, which is focused on the area off the west coast of Malaysia, has sensors that allow the crew to clearly detect small debris in the water, the fleet said.

CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest described the search as “extremely painstaking work,” suggesting a grid would have been drawn over the ocean for teams to comb, bit by bit.

Quest said that the expanding search area shows how little idea rescue officials have of where the plane might be. But he’s still confident they’ll find it eventually.

“It’s not hopeless by any means. They will find it.,” he said. “They have to. They have to know what happened.”

By Michael Pearson and Jethro Mullen

CNN’s Jim Sciutto and Khushbu Shah contributed to this report.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 318 other followers