KUALA LUMPUR, March 15 — Missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 climbed to 45,000 feet ― above the Boeing 777’s approved operating altitude ― in the moments after its transponders stopped communicating, according to raw military radar data released by Malaysia.
MH370 then fell sporadically before reaching 23,000 feet ― well below the 35,000 feet cruising altitude — as it flew over Penang, the New York Times reported yesterday citing US government officials and sources familiar with the investigation.
Investigators also extracted performance data from the Rolls Royce engines used on the Boeing 777 that suggested it lost 40,000 feet within a minute, but have discounted the information as the rate of descent was improbable.
One aviation specialist told the NYT that the erratic changes in altitude suggested it was pilot-induced rather than mechanical.
“It is extremely difficult for an aircraft to physically, however heavy it might be, to free fall,” Cengiz Turkoglu, a senior lecturer in aeronautical engineering at City University London who specialises in aviation safety, told the US daily.
Others said it may be due to MH370 being flown manually after autopilot was disengaged by the plane veering off its pre-programmed flight path to Beijing.
The Beijing-bound plane with 239 people onboard has now been missing for over a week.
Its transponders stopped communicating when it was 120 nautical miles east of Kelantan and when it was at over 30,000 feet.
But the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAF) radar tracked a plane that may be MH370 in an “air turnback” and recorded the aircraft flying to the Straits of Malacca, before it lost the signal 200 nautical miles northwest of Penang on March 8.
The RMAF explained that the flight movements were recorded and not observed live. It also said the apparent intrusion by an unidentified aircraft into Malaysian airspace did not trigger security alarms as the plane’s profile did not indicate it was a hostile craft.
Malaysia later released the highly-confidential raw data from its primary radar to nations assisting the investigations, including superpowers US and China.
Yesterday, the NYT cited a “person who examined the data” as MH370 flew near or through the southern tip of Thailand, then back across peninsular Malaysia towards Penang, before venturing into the Straits.
Recent revelations continue to reinforce the hypothesis that the plane was deliberately taken off course and flow in the direction of the Indian Ocean, where rescuers are now scouring for signs of MH370.
Yesterday, satellite firm Inmarsat confirmed it continued to receive establishing signals from the plane hours after it stopped responding to air traffic controllers.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal cited US officials as saying Rolls Royce, whose engines power the Boeing 777-200ER used by MH370, received performance data bursts from the plane after it lost signal, suggesting it flew for hours after that point in time.
Rolls Royce and Boeing have since denied receiving any such data.