By Eileen Ng
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: The missing Boeing 777 jetliner changed course over the sea, crossed Malaysia and reached the Strait of Malacca — hundreds of miles from its last position recorded by civilian authorities, Malaysian military officials said Tuesday, citing military radar data.
The development added confusion and mystery into one of most puzzling aviation incidents of recent time, and it has raised questions about why the Malaysia Airlines flight apparently was not transmitting signals detectable by civilian radar, why its crew was silent about the course change and why no distress calls were sent after it turned back.
Many experts have been working on the assumption there was a catastrophic event on the flight — such as an explosion, engine failure, terrorist attack, extreme turbulence, pilot error or even suicide. The director of the CIA said in Washington that he still would not rule out terrorism.
Flight MH370, carrying 239 people, took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. Saturday, bound for Beijing. Authorities initially said its last contact with ground controllers was less than an hour into the flight at a height of 35,000 feet, when the plane was somewhere between the east coast of Malaysia and Vietnam.
But local newspaper Berita Harian quoted Malaysia’s air force chief, Gen. Rodzali Daud, as saying that radar at a military base had tracked the jet as it changed its course, with the final signal at 2:40 a.m. showing the plane to be near Pulau Perak at the northern approach to the Strait of Malacca, a busy waterway that separates the western coast of Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra island. It was flying slightly lower, at around 29,528 feet, he said.
“After that, the signal from the plane was lost,” he was quoted as saying.
A high-ranking military official involved in the investigation confirmed the report. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose sensitive information.
Authorities had said earlier the plane may have tried to turn back to Kuala Lumpur, but they expressed surprise it would do so without informing ground control.
The search was initially focused hundreds of miles to the east, in waters off Vietnam, with more than 40 planes and ships from at least 10 nations searching the area without finding a trace of the missing aircraft.
Also Tuesday, Malaysian and international police authorities said two people who boarded Flight MH370 with stolen passports were Iranians who had bought tickets to Europe, where they were planning to migrate.
CIA Director John Brennan said in Washington that Malaysian authorities are looking at how people with stolen passports were able to board the plane.
Asked if terrorism could be ruled out, Brennan replied, “No, I wouldn’t rule it out. Not at all.”