By Tom Watkins
(CNN) — Investigators got new information that may help them narrow the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on Thursday as new details shed light on the doomed flight’s final moments early March 8 as it flew from Kuala Lumpur toward Beijing.
A search plane has detected a possible signal — the fifth so far — from the locator beacons from the missing jet’s so-called black boxes, the Australian agency coordinating the search announced.
The acoustic data from the possible signal, detected by an RAAF AP-3C Orion aircraft on Thursday afternoon, were being analyzed at RAAF Base Edinburgh near Adelaide, according to a source with the Australian Defense Force. The source said the signal was detected by sonar buoys that had been deployed by the aircraft earlier.
The data show “potential of being from a man-made source,” said retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the agency’s chief coordinator.
A senior Malaysian government official and another source involved in the investigation divulged Thursday a number of details about the flight:
• Malaysian air force search aircraft were scrambled about 8 a.m. March 8, soon after Malaysia Airlines reported that its plane was missing, Malaysian sources told CNN. The aircraft took off before authorities corroborated data indicating that the plane turned back westward, a senior Malaysian government official told CNN.
• But the air force did not inform the Department of Civil Aviation or search and rescue operations until three days later, March 11, a source involved in the investigation told CNN.
• Flight 370’s pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was the last person on the jet to speak to air-traffic controllers, telling them “Good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero,” Malaysian sources told CNN. The sources said there was nothing unusual about his voice, which betrayed no indication that he was under stress. One of the sources, an official involved in the investigation, told CNN that police played the recording to five other Malaysia Airlines pilots who knew the pilot and co-pilot. “There were no third-party voices,” the source said.
• Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from military radar for about 120 nautical miles after it crossed back over the Malaysian Peninsula, sources say. Based on available data, this means the plane must have dipped in altitude to between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, a senior Malaysian government official and a source involved in the investigation tell CNN.
The dip could have been programmed into the computers controlling the plane as an emergency maneuver, said aviation expert David Soucie.
“The real issue here is it looks like — more and more — somebody in the cockpit was directing this plane and directing it away from land,” said CNN aviation analyst and former National Transportation Safety Board Managing Director Peter Goelz. “And it looks as though they were doing it to avoid any kind of detection.”
But former U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo was not convinced. She said the reported dip could have occurred in response to a loss of pressure, to reach a level where pressurization was not needed and those aboard the plane would have been able to breathe without oxygen, or to get out of the way of commercial traffic, which typically flies at higher altitudes.
That would have been necessary had the plane’s transponder been turned off and it lost communications. “If you don’t have any communications, you need to get out of other traffic,” Schiavo said.
“We still don’t have any motive and any evidence of a crime yet,” she said, adding that most radar can track planes at altitudes below 4,000 feet, so the plane’s descent may not have indicated any attempt by whoever was controlling it to hide.
She held out hope that the black boxes hold the answers and that they will be found soon.
The possible signal heard by a search plane was picked up through sonar buoys equipped to receive such electronic data and was detected near the Australian ship Ocean Shield, said the Joint Agency Coordination Centre.
The Australian Defense Force source said the signal detected was not at the 37.5 kHz frequency consistent with the pingers from flight data recorders but in a range that suggests strongly that it is from something that is man-made. Commodore Peter Leavy of the Royal Australian Navy said Wednesday in Perth that existing technology in RAAF P3 aircraft had been modified to allow the acoustic processor to pick up sounds in the frequency range. Using the technology in this way is experimental, according to the source.
The source said four RAAF P3 Orions have been modified with this technology, with the sonar buoys expiring and sinking about eight hours after they are deployed from the aircraft. On Wednesday, Leavy said that each P3 is capable of deploying 84 buoys, laid in a pattern or grid coordinated with the Ocean Shield.
Although Leavy said the buoys have sensors that can detect signals “at least” 1,000 feet below the surface, the source is confident that the technology has been tested at a “much deeper depth.”
Crews have been narrowing the search area in the Indian Ocean.
Up to 10 military aircraft, four civil aircraft and 13 ships were to assist in Thursday’s search for the Boeing 777-200ER, which was carrying 239 people when it vanished March 8 on a fight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.
Three of the vessels — the Ocean Shield to the north, and the British HMS Echo and Chinese Haixun 01 to the south — were focusing under water.
Aircraft and ships spotted a number of objects during Wednesday’s search but could recover only a small number, none of which appeared linked to Flight 370, the Joint Agency Coordination Centre said.
Thursday’s search area is about 22,400 square miles (58,000 square kilometers), centered 1,417 miles (2,280 kilometers) northwest of Perth. That’s roughly the size of West Virginia.
But the latest search area is about three-quarters of the size of the area that teams combed the day before and far smaller than what it was a few weeks ago.
Thursday’s underwater search area was bracketed by the Ocean Shield at the northern end and Haixun 01 and HMS Echo at the southern end.
The Ocean Shield first picked up two sets of underwater pulses on Saturday that were of a frequency close to that used by the locator beacons. It heard nothing more until Tuesday, when it reacquired the signals twice. The four signals were within 17 miles of one another.
“I believe we are searching in the right area, but we need to visually identify wreckage before we can confirm with certainty that this is the final resting place of MH370,” Houston said Wednesday.
In another piece of encouraging news, authorities analyzed the signals picked up over the weekend and concluded that they probably came from specific electronic equipment rather than from marine life, which can make similar sounds.
“They believe the signals to be consistent with the specification and description of a flight data recorder,” Houston said. “I’m now optimistic that we will find the aircraft or what’s left of the aircraft in the not-too-distant future.”
Thursday is Day 34 in the search. Time is of the essence: The batteries powering the flight recorders’ locator beacons are certified to emit high-pitched signals for only 30 days after they get wet.
“The signals are getting weaker,” Houston said Wednesday, “which means we’re either moving away from the search area or the pinger batteries are dying.”
CNN’s Nic Robertson and journalists Ivy Sam and Chan Kok Leong in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
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