US investigators suspect the missing Malaysia Airline passenger jet was in the air for four after its last confirmed contact, and may have been diverted to an unknown location, it was reported on Thursday.
Aviation investigators and national security officials are basing their theory on data automatically downloaded and relayed to the ground from the Boeing 777’s Rolls-Royce engines, which suggested the plane flew for a total of five hours, The Wall Street Journal reported. It attributed the details to two unidentified sources "familiar with the details".
The missing Malaysia Airlines jet sent two bursts of technical data back to Rolls-Royce, to the plane’s engine maker’s global engine health monitoring centre, before it vanished off the radar, the New Scientist reported on Thursday.
If confirmed, it could aid the protracted investigation looking for clues that might pinpoint the last known movements of the Boeing 777-200ER.
Flight MH370 sent data as it took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and subsequently during the plane’s climbing phase.
“US counterterrorism officials are pursuing the possibility that a pilot or someone else on board the plane may have diverted it toward an undisclosed location after intentionally turning off the jetliner’s transponders to avoid radar detection,” the WSJ reported, citing “one person tracking the probe”.
The new information raises questions as to how far the aircraft may have travelled after losing contact with air traffic control officials, and whether anyone was in control of the plane, which had 239 people onboard.
Rolls-Royce said today it could not comment on the investigation. “We continue to monitor the situation and offer our support to Malaysia Airlines,” the British engine maker said in a statement.
The manufacturer had on Sunday told the South China Morning Post that it tracks all of its engines and that if there had been a change in power it would know "first hand if there is something wrong with the engine". A spokeswoman said at the time any information they had would be passed to the airline and Malaysian authorities.
Flight MH370's last known position was recorded roughly halfway between Malaysia and Vietnam. Malaysian authorities earlier said that they had tracked what could have been the craft changing course and heading west.
The fresh suspicions come following the publication of pictures by China which appear to show large chunks of debris floating in the sea.
The pictures, posted on a Chinese government department's website, show three large objects in the South China Sea off the southern tip of Vietnam, near to where the flight was last tracked, Xinhua news agency reported.
The images, captured at around 11am on Sunday - more than 24 hours after the plane disappeared - appear to show "three suspected floating objects", the Xinhua report stated.
The largest was estimated to measure 24 metres by 22 metres, Xinhua said.
The images were originally posted on the website of China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.
China's Premier Li Keqiang said today work was ongoing to try and identify the "suspicious spots" in the images.
However, the Vietnamese said today that two spotter planes sent to the area had failed to find anything.
It was hoped the images would provide investigators with the first real clue as to the fate of the plane, which disappeared after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Since then, the search has covered 92,600 square kilometers (35,800 square miles), first east and then west of Malaysia and even expanded toward India on Wednesday.
No other governments have confirmed the Xinhua report, which did not say when Chinese officials became aware of the images and associated them with the missing plane.
China's aviation chief Li Jiaxiang said Tuesday: "We have been waiting for a search result, but regrettably there has been no certain outcome yet.
"On one hand, we still have expectations, and sincerely hope that the missing flight can be found, but on the other hand, we have to be prepared for different scenarios.
"We'll never give up when there is a slice of hope."
He said China had made a number of suggestions in relation to the hunt, again urging Malaysia to step up the search and make the exchange of information smoother.
Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said Malaysia had not been officially informed by China about the images, which he said he was learning about from the news.
He said if Beijing informs them of the coordinates, Malaysia will dispatch vessels and planes immediately.
"If we get confirmation, we will send something,” he said on Thursday morning.