KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Piracy and pilot suicide are among the scenarios under study as investigators grow increasingly certain the missing Malaysia Airlines jet changed course and headed west after its last radio contact with air traffic controllers a week ago.
The latest evidence suggests the Boeing 777 with 239 on board didn’t experience a catastrophic incident over the South China Sea as was initially suspected.
Some experts theorize that one of the pilots of Flight MH370, or someone else with flying experience, hijacked the plane or committed suicide by plunging the jet into the sea.
Adding to the speculation that someone was flying the jet, The New York Times on Friday quoted sources familiar with the investigation as saying that the plane experienced significant changes in altitude after it lost contact with ground control and altered its course more than once.
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A U.S. official told The Associated Press earlier that investigators are examining the possibility of “human intervention” in the plane’s disappearance, adding it may have been “an act of piracy.”
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was possible the plane may have landed somewhere. The official later said there was no solid information on who might have been involved.
Investigators also are looking at the possibility that a shipment of lithium batteries in the cargo hold may have caught fire and felled the aircraft.
A senior U.S. official briefed on the contents listed on the plane’s cargo manifest said a “significant load” of lithium batteries had been aboard, raising suspicions because of previous cargo-plane crashes attributed to lithium-battery shipments.
Such shipments can overheat and cause intense fires. But that possibility is inconsistent with information that the plane may have kept flying for hours after it vanished. While other theories are being examined, the U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said key evidence suggesting human intervention is that contact with the Boeing 777’s transponder stopped about 12 minutes before a messaging system on the jet quit.
Such a gap would be unlikely in the case of an in-flight catastrophe. A Malaysian official, who declined to be identified, said that only a skilled aviator could navigate the plane the way it was flown after its last confirmed location over the South China Sea. The official said it had been established with a “more than 50 percent” degree of certainty that military radar picked up the plane after it fell off civilian radar.
Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said the country had yet to determine what happened to the plane after it ceased communicating with ground control about 40 minutes into the flight to Beijing early March 8.
Though some investigators are convinced that “human intervention” caused the disappearance, U.S. officials told the Obama administration at a briefing Friday that they have “run all the traps” and come up with no good information on who might have been involved, according to an official familiar with the meeting.
The meeting was attended by State and Defense Department officials, the CIA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, among others.
Another U.S. official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators have run out of clues except for a type of satellite data that has never been used before to find a plane and is very inexact.
The information consists of attempts by an Inmarsat satellite to identify a broad area where the plane might be in case a messaging system aboard the plane should need to connect with the satellite, said the official.
The official compared the location attempts, called a “handshake,” to someone driving around with their cellphone not in use. As the phone passes from the range of one cellphone tower to another, the towers note that the phone is in range in case messages need to be sent.
In the case of the Malaysian plane, there were successful attempts by the satellite to roughly locate the Boeing 777 about once an hour over four to five hours, the official said.
Searchers are trying to use the handshakes to triangulate the general area of where the plane was known to have been at the last satellite check, the official said.
The New York Times, quoting U.S. officials and others familiar with the probe, said the separate radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appear to show the airliner climbing to 45,000 feet, higher than a Boeing 777’s approved limit, soon after it disappeared from civilian radar, and making a sharp turn to the west.
The radar track then shows the plane descending unevenly to an altitude of 23,000 feet, below normal cruising levels for a plane that size, before rising again and flying northwest over the Strait of Malacca toward the Indian Ocean, The New York Times reported.
The combination of altitude changes and at least two significant course corrections could have a variety of explanations, including that a pilot or a hijacker diverted the plane or that it flew unevenly without a pilot after the crew became disabled.
The erratic movements of the aircraft after it diverted course also raise questions about why the military did not respond to the flight emergency. Malaysian officials have said they took no action because the object did not appear hostile.
Scores of aircraft and ships from 12 countries are involved in the search for Flight MH370 that reaches into the eastern stretches of the South China Sea and on the western side of the Malay Peninsula, northwest into the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean.
There is no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the two pilots, though Malaysian police have said they are looking at their psychological backgrounds, their family life and connections.
Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, have both been described as respectable, community-minded men.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.