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Officials Dispute Report That Malaysian Jet Kept Flying For Hours

The Malaysian air force, with help from about a dozen other nations, continues to search the seas on both sides of the Malay Peninsula for any sign of Flight 370.
The Malaysian air force, with help from about a dozen other nations, continues to search the seas on both sides of the Malay Peninsula for any sign of Flight 370.
This post is being updated.

Just a few hours after a stunning report from The Wall Street Journal — headlined "U.S. Investigators Suspect Missing Airplane Flew On For Hours" — the Malaysian officials in charge of the investigation say that story's central premise isn't true.

The last data received from devices installed in the Rolls-Royce engines of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that disappeared Saturday were transmitted at 1:07 a.m. local time, Malaysia's acting defense minister told reporters Thursday. That would be a little more than 30 minutes after Beijing-bound Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur. The minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, appeared at a news conference with the airline's CEO.

If the Malaysian official's account is correct, then the underpinnings of the Journal's story are knocked away. The newspaper reported early Thursday that:

"U.S. investigators suspect that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 stayed in the air for about four hours past the time it reached its last confirmed location, according to two people familiar with the details, raising the possibility that the plane could have flown on for hundreds of additional miles under conditions that remain murky.

"Aviation investigators and national security officials believe the plane flew for a total of five hours, based on data automatically downloaded and sent to the ground from the Boeing Co. 777's engines as part of a routine maintenance and monitoring program."

Update at 4:25 p.m. ET. The Journal eventuallyran a correction saying the data did not come from the engines; instead U.S. investigators believe the plane kept flying past its last known contact based "on an analysis of signals sent through the plane's satellite-communication link designed to automatically transmit the status of onboard systems."

The Journal, though, isn't the only news outlet reporting Thursday about evidence that the plane may have been in the air for hours more than first thought. Bloomberg News writes that:

"Aviation specialists investigating last week's loss of Flight 370 say evidence gathered so far suggests the plane traveled west over Malaysia, possibly continuing for hours, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the probe is active. ...

"Radar signals sent from the ground continued to reflect back from the plane after its transponder went dead as the aircraft headed north from Malaysia toward Vietnam, said the people, who weren't permitted to speak publicly about the probe. After the transponder shut off, making it harder to follow on radar, the plane turned left toward the west instead of continuing on its path." (Update at 10:45 a.m. ET.)

Later Thursday, ABC News' Martha Raddatz weighed in to report that "U.S. officials have an 'indication' the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner may have crashed in the Indian Ocean and is moving the USS Kidd to the area to begin searching. It will take another 24 hours to move the ship into position, a senior Pentagon official told ABC News."

CNN, though, was saying that correspondent Richard Quest had been told by "a senior aviation source ... that there was no technical data suggesting the airplane continued flying for four hours." (Update about ABC News and CNN reports added at 12:45 p.m. ET.)

As we've written, the now six-day-old search for Flight 370 and any sign of the 239 people who were aboard has been marked by confusion and conflicting claims from Malaysian officials. The country's air force chief, for example, was quoted as saying radar had tracked the plane flying at least 200 miles west of its intended course, then later denied he had said that, then conceded the air force did indeed see radar blips that might have been the jet headed west.

Rolls-Royce is declining to comment on either the Journal's report or the Malaysian official's response, The Guardian writes. (Update at 9:50 a.m. ET.)

Meanwhile, Hussein also told reporters Thursday that Chinese satellite images showing some large objects floating in the South China Sea "did not show any debris" from the missing flight, the BBC reports. The release of those photos late Wednesday prompted speculation that the plane might finally have been found.

So, the search continues on both the eastern side of the Malay Peninsula, in the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam, and on the western side in the Malacca Strait, where the plane might have flown if it did indeed turn west for some reason.

The Journal said in its report that "as part of its maintenance agreements, Malaysia Airlines transmits its engine data live to Rolls Royce for analysis. The system compiles data from inside the 777's two Trent 800 engines and transmits snapshots of performance, as well as the altitude and speed of the jet. Those snippets are compiled and transmitted in 30-minute increments, said one person familiar with the system."

Also at Thursday's news conference, Malaysian police said reports that the homes of the jet's pilots had been searched were incorrect.

One other development: The airline announced that "as a mark of respect to the passengers and crew of [Flight] 370," it is retiring that flight number and that of Flight 371, the return trip from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur. Starting Friday, the Kuala Lumpur to Beijing flight's number will be 318. The Beijing to Kuala Lumpur flight will be No. 319.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.