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Probe zeroes in on pilots, hunt widens to land

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 took off from Kuala Lumpur at around 12.40 am on March 8, headed to Beijing.

Kuala Lumpur | Updated: March 17, 2014 7:24 am
Journalists outside co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid’s house near Kuala Lumpur on Sunday. AP Journalists outside co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid’s house near Kuala Lumpur on Sunday. (AP)

The final words from the missing Malaysian jetliner’s cockpit gave no indication anything was wrong even though one of the plane’s communications systems had already been disabled, officials said Sunday, adding to suspicions that one or both of the pilots were involved in the disappearance. 

As authorities examined a flight simulator that was confiscated from the home of one of the pilots and dug through the background of all 239 people on board and the ground crew that serviced the plane, they were also grappling with the enormity of the search ahead of them.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 took off from Kuala Lumpur at around 12.40 am on March 8, headed to Beijing. On Saturday, Malaysia’s government confirmed that the plane was deliberately diverted and may have flown as far north as Central Asia, or south into the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean.

Authorities have said someone on board the plane first disabled one of its communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS — at 1.07 a.m. Around 14 minutes later, the transponder, which identifies the plane to commercial radar systems, was also shut down. The fact that they went dark separately is strong evidence that the plane’s disappearance was deliberate.

On Sunday, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference that that the final, reassuring words from the cockpit — “All right, good night” — were spoken to air traffic controllers after ACARS was shut down. Whoever spoke did not mention any trouble on board, seemingly misleading ground control.

Air force Maj Gen Affendi Buang told reporters he did not know whether it was the pilot or co-pilot who spoke to air traffic controllers.

Given the expanse of land and water that might need to be searched, the plane might take months — or longer — to find, or might never be located. The search area now includes 11 countries the plane might have flown over, with the number of countries involved in the operation increasing from 14 to 25.

The search effort initially focused on the relatively shallow waters of the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, where the plane was first thought to be. On Sunday, Malaysia briefed envoys from nearly two dozen nations and appealed for help in the search along two arcs stretching from the shores of Caspian Sea to the far south of the Indian Ocean. “From focusing mainly on shallow seas, we are now looking at large tracts of land, crossing 11 countries, as well as deep and remote oceans,” Hishammuddin said.

In the United States, Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, told NBC’s Meet the Press that the FBI was supporting the criminal probe.

Investigators are trying to answer these questions: If the two pilots were involved in the disappearance, were they working together or alone, or with one or more of the passengers or crew? Did they fly the plane under duress or of their own volition? Did one or more of the passengers manage to break into the cockpit, or use the threat of violence to gain entry and then pilot the plane? And what possible motive could there be for flying off with the plane?

Malaysia’s police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said he requested countries with citizens on board the plane to investigate their background, looking for ties to terrorist groups, aviation skills or evidence of prior contact with the pilots.

Police searched the homes of both pilots on Saturday, the first time they had done so since the plane went missing. Asked why it took them so long, Khalid said authorities “didn’t see the necessity in the early stages”.

Khalid said police confiscated the elaborate flight simulator that one of the pilots, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had built in his home and reassembled it in their offices to study it for clues. Zaharie, 53, who has three grown children and one grandchild, had previously posted photos online of the simulator.

Malaysian police are also investigating engineers and ground staff who may have had contact with the plane before it took off.

ACARS is used to send information about the plane’s engines and other parts to the airline. Even though it was disabled on Flight 370, it continued to send out faint hourly pulses that were recorded by a satellite. The last ‘ping’ was sent out at 8.11 am — 7 hours and 31 minutes after the plane took off.

While many people believe the plane has crashed, there is a very small possibility it may have landed somewhere and be relatively intact. Affendi and Hishammuddin said it was possible for the plane to ‘ping’ when on the ground if its electrical systems were undamaged.

Australia said it was sending one of its two AP-3C Orion aircraft involved in the search to islands in the Indian Ocean. The plane will search the north and west of the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian territory.

Given that the northern route the plane may have taken would take it over countries with busy airspace, most experts say the person in control of the aircraft would more likely have chosen the southern route. The southern Indian Ocean is the world’s third-deepest and one of the most remote stretches of water in the world, with little radar coverage.

Zaharie, the pilot, was a supporter of a Malaysian opposition political party that is locked in a bitter dispute with the government, according to postings on his Facebook page and a friend, Peter Chong, who is a party member.

Chong said that he last saw Zaharie a week before the pilot left on the flight for Beijing, and that they had agreed to meet on his return to organise a shopping trip for poor children.

“If I am on a flight, I would choose Captain Zaharie,” he said. “He is dedicated to his job, he is a professional and he loves flying.”

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