Washington (CNN) — A classified analysis of electronic and satellite data suggests Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 likely crashed either in the Bay of Bengal or elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, CNN learned Friday.
The analysis conducted by the United States and Malaysian governments may have narrowed the search area for the commercial jetliner that vanished a week ago with 239 people on board en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, leaving little trace of where it went or why.
The analysis used radar data and satellite pings to calculate that the plane diverted to the west, across the Malayan peninsula, and then either flew in a northwest direction toward the Bay of Bengal or southwest into the Indian Ocean.
News of the analysis comes as the United States has ordered the USS Kidd, a guided missile destroyer, into the Indian Ocean and Indian officials have expanded their search effort into the Bay of Bengal.
The theory builds on earlier revelations by U.S. officials that an automated reporting system on the airliner was pinging satellites for hours after its last reported contact with air traffic controllers. Inmarsat, a satellite communications company, confirmed to CNN that automated signals were registered on its network.
An aviation industry source tells CNN that the flight’s automated communications system appeared to be intact for up to five hours, because pings from the system were received after the transponder last emitted a signal.
Taken together, the data point toward speculation of a dark scenario in which someone took control of the plane for some unknown purpose, perhaps terrorism.
That theory is buoyed by word from a senior U.S. official familiar with the investigation that the Malaysia Airlines plane made several significant altitude changes and altered its course more than once after losing contact with flight towers.
The jetliner was flying “a strange path,” the official said on condition of anonymity. The details of the radar readings were first reported by The New York Times on Friday.
Malaysian military radar showed the plane climbing to 45,000 feet soon after disappearing from civilian radar screens and then dropping to 23,000 feet before climbing again, the official said.
Then there’s the theory that maybe Flight 370 landed in a remote Indian Ocean island chain.
The suggestion — and it’s only that at this point — is based on analysis of radar data revealed Friday by Reuters suggesting that the plane wasn’t just blindly flying northwest from Malaysia. Reuters, citing unidentified sources familiar with the investigation, reported that whoever was piloting the vanished jet was following navigational waypoints that would have taken the plane over the Andaman Islands.
The radar data don’t show the plane over the Andaman Islands, but only on a known route that would take it there, Reuters cited its sources as saying.
The movie-plot theory seems more complicated and unlikely than one in which the plane — its flight crew perhaps incapacitated — simply flew on until it ran out of fuel or faced some other problem. But it’s one that law enforcement has to check out, former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom said.
Aviation experts say it’s possible, if highly unlikely, that someone could have hijacked and landed the giant Boeing 777 undetected.
The international airport in Port Blair, the regional capital of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, has a runway that is long enough to accommodate a 777, according to publicly available data.
But the region is highly militarized because of its strategic importance to India, Indian officials with knowledge of the operation tell CNN, making it an unlikely target for pirates trying to sneak in an enormous airplane with a wingspan of more than 200 feet.
Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle newspaper, says there’s just nowhere to land such a big plane in his archipelago without attracting notice.
“There is no chance, no such chance, that any aircraft of this size can come towards Andaman and Nicobar Islands and land,” he said.
The Malaysian government said Friday that it can’t confirm the report.
And a senior U.S. official offered a conflicting account Thursday, telling CNN that “there is probably a significant likelihood” the plane is on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
The question of what happened to the jetliner has turned into one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history, befuddling industry experts and government officials.
Suggestions of what happened have ranged from a catastrophic explosion to hijacking to pilot suicide.
Among the things being considered is whether lithium batteries in the cargo hold, which have been blamed in previous crashes, played a role in the disappearance, according to U.S. officials briefed on the latest developments in the investigation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release details to the media.
If the batteries being carried on the plane caused a fire, it still doesn’t fully explain other anomalies with Flight 370, the officials say.