Malaysia Says Flight Ended in Indian Ocean as Hunt Goes On

Mar 24, 2014 1:31 pm ET

(Updates with airline message to families in sixth paragraph. For more on Flight 370, see EXT3.)

March 24 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysia concluded that Flight 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean with no hope of survivors, ruling out theories of a detour over Asia or an island landing, as the search for wreckage from the missing jetliner drags on.

An analysis of satellite data shows that the Boeing Co. 777-200ER flew south and that “its last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean” off Australia’s west coast, Prime Minister Najib Razak said today after another day of fruitless air and sea patrols.

“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” Najib told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. “It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”

His comments capped a day in which the hunt for objects seen drifting at sea raised optimism that fresh clues might be found in the longest-running disappearance in the modern airline era. Instead, he shed no new light on why Flight 370 diverted from a planned Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route on March 8 and carried its 239 passengers and crew in the opposite direction.

Reaching Relatives

Malaysian Air sought to prepare family members of those aboard Flight 370 for the prime minister’s announcement, saying “the majority” received phone calls and personal contacts ahead of Najib’s remarks about a mystery now in its 17th day.

The carrier “deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived,” Malaysian Air said in a follow-up message to relatives. “As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s prime minister, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”

About two-thirds of the travelers on the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. 777 were Chinese, and relatives gathered in a Beijing hotel responded with fresh outbursts of grief.

A middle-aged woman who came out of the hotel’s grand ballroom in front of the assembled television cameras screamed, “All my family are gone.” One man was taken out from the room on a stretcher, and another emerged and began hitting and kicking journalists before being restrained by police.

No Doubt

While Najib didn’t use the word “crash” in his remarks, he and Malaysian Air sought to remove any doubt that the plane came down anywhere else than at sea, after days in which the absence of evidence became fodder for conspiracy theorists around the world.

The prime minister cited an analysis of data from satellite provider Inmarsat Plc and the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch as showing that the 777 flew south after contact was lost as it neared Vietnamese airspace. Pings tracked by satellite had suggested either a northward arc or, more strongly, the southerly route that Najib confirmed today.

That course had been the focus of the search for more than a week, while Malaysia hadn’t ruled out the prospect of a heading that took Flight 370 over Asia. Bloomberg News reported March 15 that the last satellite transmission from the jet probably placed it over the Indian Ocean.

Today’s statements by Najib and the airline reflect that investigators have ruled out an overland path toward China and Kazakhstan, said Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which has been assisting Malaysian authorities.

Nothing Northern

“The satellite data has been continuously assessed, and it was finally getting to the point where the Malaysians felt comfortable enough to rule out the northern route,” Nantel said in a telephone interview.

Aircraft and ships scouring the southern Indian Ocean came up empty again today, and the passage of time since the accident adds to the difficulty in locating any surface debris in waters known for high swells and strong winds.

“It remains immensely difficult to search at sea,” New York-based security consultant Soufan Group, led by former FBI counterterrorism specialist Ali Soufan, said in a briefing on its website. Such a hunt is “like finding a drifting needle in a chaotic, color-changing, perception-shifting, motion-sickness- inducing haystack.”

The size of any wreckage may vary depending precisely on how Flight 370 ended, said Todd Curtis, chief executive officer and founder of safety and security consultant AirSafe.com.

Ditching Speed

Pilots attempting emergency water landings typically deploy flaps on the trailing edge of the wings to lower their speed. The Malaysian jet would be traveling at “higher than the ideal ditching speed” if it flew on autopilot until fuel reserves were exhausted or deliberately tipped into a dive, Curtis said.

“It would tear the aircraft up for sure, and contents could’ve been strewn all over the place,” Curtis said.

HMAS Success from the Royal Australian Navy found nothing, said Andrea Hayward-Maher, a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, after an Australian Air Force P3 Orion cruising overhead saw a gray or green circular object and an orange rectangular item.

They were in an area about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told lawmakers in Canberra, without giving coordinates. They could be received by tomorrow morning at the latest, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in Kuala Lumpur.

Chinese Findings

The items are separate from those reported by Chinese aircraft earlier in the day, which the Australians will try to pursue as a U.S. Navy plane came up empty. The crew of a Chinese IL-76 plane reported sighting two “relatively big” floating objects, state-run Xinhua News Agency said.

Chinese aircraft photographed a square floating object, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing. The icebreaker Xuelong and three Chinese naval ships are due to arrive in the search area tomorrow or March 26, Hong said.

The Chinese asked for Australian aircraft to further scan the area around the coordinates of 95.1113 degrees east longitude and 42.5453 south latitude, Xinhua said. Many white smaller objects were scattered within a radius of several kilometers of the two objects, the agency said.

In a satellite picture taken March 18, China detected a floating object 22.5 meters (74 feet) long at a position about 120 kilometers southwest of a March 16 image that showed similar items, according to China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.

The dimensions appear similar to those of the larger of two objects seen previously, said to be 24 meters long.

Recorders Sought

Recovery of the data and cockpit-voice recorders from the 777 would help investigators narrow in on the plane’s movements and pilots’ actions in its final hours in the air after contact was lost.

A U.S. Navy device to help locate those so-called black boxes is being deployed “closer to the search area,” Commander Chris Budde, U.S. Seventh Fleet Operations Officer, said in an e-mailed statement. The Towed Pinger Locator System, pulled by a vessel at speeds from one to five knots, can detect the black- box pinger to a depth of about 20,000 feet, he said.

The black box is supposed to emit pings for 30 days after becoming immersed in water. While black boxes are designed to withstand depths of 20,000 feet and may work in even deeper water, the range of the pings is a mile, according to manuals from Honeywell International Inc., the maker of the equipment.

The ocean in the area is about 1 kilometer to 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) deep, AMSA said by e-mail.

Two locators and a third one attached to a faster-moving French nuclear submarine covered about 22,000 square kilometers in 31 days of hunting for Air France Flight 447, according to a 2009 report into the operation. The crashed Airbus Group NV A330 was only found two years later in an underwater sonar search.

The Royal Australian Navy’s Ocean Shield, equipped with a subsea remotely operated vehicle, and the HMS Echo, a specialist ship from Britain’s Royal Navy fitted with underwater listening gear and devices to survey the seabed, were on their way to the zone.

--With assistance from Michael Sin, Michael Heath, Angus Whitley and David Fickling in Sydney, Barry Porter in Kuala Lumpur, Shamim Adam in Singapore, Gopal Ratnam, John Hughes, Del Quentin Wilber, Michelle Jamrisko, Greg Giroux and Alan Levin in Washington, Aipeng Soo and Henry Sanderson in Beijing, Marie Mawad in Paris, Jason Scott in Canberra, Julie Johnsson in Chicago and Andrea Rothman in Toulouse.