Anshuman Daga & Yantoultra Ngui
The co-pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 spoke the last words heard from the cockpit, the chief executive of the airline said on Monday, as investigators considered suicide by the captain or his first officer as one possible explanation for the plane’s disappearance.
MH370 vanished on March 8 with 239 people aboard while on its way to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. Investigators are increasingly convinced it was diverted perhaps thousands of miles off course by someone with deep knowledge of the Boeing 777-200ER and commercial navigation.
A search unprecedented in its scale is now under way for the aircraft, covering an area stretching from the shores of the Caspian Sea in the north to deep in the southern Indian Ocean.
Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya also told a news conference that it was unclear exactly when one of the plane’s automatic tracking systems had been disabled, appearing to contradict the weekend comments of government ministers.
Suspicions of hijacking or sabotage had hardened further when officials said on Sunday that the last radio message from the plane — an informal “all right, good night” — was spoken after the system, called ACARS, was shut down.
“Initial investigations indicate it was the co-pilot who basically spoke the last time it was recorded on tape,” Ahmad Jauhari said on Monday, when asked who it was believed had spoken those words.
That was a sign-off to air traffic controllers at 1.19 am, as the Beijing-bound plane left Malaysian airspace under the command of its captain, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and first officer, 27-year-old Fariq Abdul Hamid.
The last transmission from the ACARS system — a maintenance computer that relays data on the plane’s status — was received at 1.07 am, as the plane crossed Malaysia’s northeast coast and headed out over the Gulf of Thailand.
“We don’t know when the ACARS was switched off after that,” Ahmad Jauhari said. “It was supposed to transmit 30 minutes from there, but that transmission did not come through.”
Satellite data suggests the plane could be anywhere in either of two vast corridors that arc through much of Asia: one stretching north from Laos to the Caspian, the other south from west of the Indonesian island of Sumatra into the southern Indian Ocean west of Australia.
China, which has been vocal in its impatience with Malaysian efforts to find the plane, called on Kuala Lumpur to “immediately” expand and clarify the scope of the search. About two-thirds of the passengers aboard MH370 were Chinese.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he had spoken to Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak by telephone, and had offered more surveillance resources in addition to the two P-3C Orion aircraft Canberra has already committed.
The plane’s disappearance has baffled investigators and aviation experts. It vanished from civilian air traffic control screens off Malaysia’s east coast less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian authorities believe that, as the plane crossed the northeast coast and flew across the Gulf of Thailand, someone on board shut off its communications systems and turned sharply to the west.
That has focused attention on the crew. Malaysian police are trawling through the backgrounds of the pilots, flight and ground staff for any clues to a possible motive in what they say is now being treated as a criminal investigation.
Asked if pilot or co-pilot suicide was a line of inquiry, Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said: “We are looking at it.” But he added it was only one of the possibilities under investigation.
A senior police official familiar with the investigation said the programmes in the flight simulator that was seized from the home of MH370’s captain Shah over the weekend appeared to be normal ones that allow users to practise flying and landing in different conditions.
A second officer said they had found no evidence of a link between the pilot and any militant group. “Based on what we have so far, we cannot see the terrorism link here,” he said. “We looked at known terror or extremist groups in Southeast Asia. The links are not there.”
Electronic signals between the plane and satellites continued to be exchanged for nearly six hours after MH370 flew out of range of Malaysian military radar off the northwest coast, following a commercial aviation route across the Andaman Sea towards India.
The plane had enough fuel to fly for about 30 minutes after that last satellite communication, Ahmad Jauhari said.
Twenty-six countries are involved in the search, stretching across much of Asia. Three French civil aviation experts who were involved in the search for an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009 arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Monday to help.
A source familiar with official US assessments of satellite data being used to try to find the plane said it was believed most likely it turned south sometime after the last sighting by Malaysian military radar, and may have run out of fuel over the Indian Ocean.
The Malaysian government-controlled New Straits Times on Monday quoted sources close to the investigation as saying data collected was pointing instead towards the northern corridor.
SAME FLIGHT, 9 DAYS LATER
On board Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER Flight MH318, as it cruises towards Beijing over the South China Sea, at approximately 1.30 am on Monday. MH318 has replaced the missing MH370, which has been retired. (Reuters)