THE search for the missing Malaysian airliner has been dramatically widened to include an area stretching from Kazakhstan to the Indian Ocean after officials admitted yesterday that the plane had been deliberately diverted.
FOR the first time since the aircraft vanished over a week ago, authorities in Malaysia confirmed the Boeing 777’s disappearance had not been accidental, revealing the plane’s communication system had been purposely disabled.
Addressing the media yesterday, prime minister Najib Razak said the search had entered a “new phase”, although he would not confirm earlier reports that flight MH370 had been hijacked. His comments came as police in Kuala Lumpur searched the homes of both the pilot and co-pilot.
It has now emerged the plane continued flying for more than six hours after losing contact with the ground, meaning it could have travelled as far northwest as the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan or into the Indian Ocean’s southern reaches.
The prime minister’s statement confirmed days of mounting speculation that the Beijing-bound plane’s disappearance was not accidental. It refocused the investigation into the flight’s crew and passengers, and underlined the massive task for searchers.
“Clearly the search for MH370 has entered a new phase,” Najib said at a televised news conference.
He stressed that investigators were looking into all possibilities as to why the Boeing 777 deviated so drastically from its original flight path, saying authorities could not confirm whether it was a hijacking.
Earlier, a Malaysian official claimed the plane had been hijacked, though he added that no motive had been established and no demands had been made known.
“In view of this latest development, the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” Najib told reporters.
“Despite media reports the plane was hijacked, I wish to be very clear, we are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate.”
Authorities have said they will investigate the pilots as part of their probe. Malaysian police have already said they are looking at the psychological state, family life and connections of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27. Both have been described as respectable, community-minded men.
Zaharie joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981 and had more than 18,000 hours of experience. His Facebook page showed an aviation enthusiast who flew remote-controlled aircraft, with pictures of his collection posted.
Fariq was contemplating marriage after having just graduated to the cockpit of a Boeing 777. He became the subject of scrutiny after the revelation that in 2011, he and another pilot invited two women aboard their aircraft to sit in the cockpit for a flight from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur.
Experts have previously said that whoever disabled the plane’s communication systems and then flew the jet must have had a high degree of technical knowledge and flying experience. One possibility they have raised was that one of the pilots wanted to commit suicide.
The plane was carrying 239 people when it departed for an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing at 12:40am on 8 March. Its communications with civilian air controllers were severed at about 1.20am, and the jet went missing – heralding one of the most puzzling mysteries in modern aviation history.
China, where the bulk of the passengers were from, expressed irritation over what it described as Malaysia’s foot-dragging in releasing information about the search.
Investigators now have a high degree of certainty that one of the plane’s communications systems – the aircraft and communications addressing and reporting system – was disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia. Shortly afterward, someone on board switched off the aircraft’s transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic controllers.
Najib confirmed that Malaysian air force defence radar picked up traces of the plane turning back westward, crossing over Peninsular Malaysia into the northern stretches of the Strait of Malacca. Authorities previously had said this radar data could not be verified.
Although the aircraft was flying virtually blind to air traffic controllers at this point, onboard equipment continued to send messages to satellites. The prime minister said the last confirmed signal between the plane and a satellite came at 8.11am – 7 hours and 31 minutes after takeoff. This was more than five hours later than the previous time given by Malaysian authorities as the possible last contact.
Airline officials have said the plane had enough fuel to fly for up to about eight hours.
“The investigations team is making further calculations which will indicate how far the aircraft may have flown after this last point of contact,” Najib said.
He said authorities had determined that the plane’s last communication with a satellite was in one of two possible “corridors” – a northern one from northern Thailand through to the border of the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and a southern one from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
The northern route might have taken the plane through China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan – which hosts US military bases – and Central Asia, and it is unclear how it might have gone undetected. The region is also home to extremist Islamist groups, unstable governments and remote, sparsely populated areas.
Flying south would put the plane over the Indian Ocean, with an average depth of 12,762 feet, and thousands of miles from the nearest land mass. Aviation security consultant Chris Yates said it was highly unlikely the plane would have taken the northern route across land in Asia.
“In theory, any country that sees a strange blip is going to get fighter planes up to have a look,” he said. “And if those fighter planes can’t make head or tail of what it is, they will shoot it down.”
Najib said search efforts in the South China Sea, where the plane first lost contact, had ended.
In a stinging comment yesterday, the Chinese government’s Xinhua News Agency accused Malaysia of dragging its feet in releasing information. Information released by the Malaysian leader is “painfully belated,” the statement said.
It said delays had resulted in wasted efforts and strained the nerves of relatives.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China had urged Malaysia to release more details about the new search area.
Malaysia has faced accusations that it isn’t sharing all its information or suspicions about the plane’s final movements, which have been the subject of constant media leaks both in Malaysia and the United States.
British, American and Malaysian air safety investigators have been on the ground in Malaysia to assist with the investigation.
In the Chinese capital, relatives of passengers who have anxiously awaited news at a hotel near Beijing’s airport said they felt deceived at not being told earlier about the plane’s last signal. “We are going through a roller coaster, and we feel helpless and powerless,” said a woman.
Even an experienced pilot would struggle to pull off this vanishing act
TO STEAL Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 out of midair would require a pilot who knew how to elude detection by civilian and military radar. It would take a runway a mile long to land the wide-bodied jet, possibly in the dark, and a hangar big enough to hide it. All without being seen.
Improbable but not impossible, experts say.
With the search for the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board entering its eighth day, scenarios involving piracy or hijacking are increasingly being mooted as explanations for its disappearance. Authorities are not ruling out other theories, including a catastrophic structural failure causing the plane to break up, engine failure, or pilot suicide. But a US official said on Friday investigators were considering “an act of piracy” might be involved with the plane being landed somewhere undetected.
A takeover of the plane seemed to be ruled out a few days ago, when officials discounted any link between terrorism and two passengers travelling on stolen passports. The piracy theory, however, gained new life when it was reported the plane’s transponders had been turned off, making it more difficult to track; and that signals from the plane indicated that it kept flying for several hours after its last radio contact, possibly turning west toward the Indian Ocean.
Scott Shankland, an American Airlines pilot who spent several years as a co-pilot on Boeing 777s, said a captain would know how to disable radios and other tracking systems. But a hijacker, even one trained to fly a plane, “would probably be hunting and pecking quite a while – ‘Do I pull this switch? Do I pull that?’ You could disable a great deal” of the tracking equipment, “but possibly not all of it”, he said.
Some of the plane’s data is transmitted automatically from equipment outside the cockpit, making it even harder to avoid leaving a trail of electronic breadcrumbs, he said.
Professor John Hansman, an aeronautics expert familiar with the Boeing 777, said it would be possible for an intruder to turn off the transponders, but knowing how to shut down other systems would be more difficult. Even if 9/11-style hijackers got that far, he said, they would be challenged to keep flying, make a successful landing, and hide the plane.
“If it was a hijacking, it was probably a hijacking gone bad,” he said.
Instead, Hansman thinks there could have been a series of malfunctions or a fire that shut down key systems and incapacitated the pilots. He compared it to the 1999 crash in South Dakota of a Learjet carrying pro golfer Payne Stewart. Air traffic controllers couldn’t contact the crew shortly after the jet took off from Florida; pilots in other planes saw no movement in the cockpit; and eventually the jet ran out of fuel. The resulting crash was probably caused by the pilots passing out after a loss of cabin pressure.
Without any wreckage from MH370, it’s hard to dismiss any theory. A week after the plane left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, it remains a mystery how a jet with a good safety record flying in clear weather could just disappear.
If it was a hijacking, “they would have to be somebody who has detailed knowledge of the plane,” said Alan Diehl, a former crash investigator. “Could they get down below the radar and make a beeline to an abandoned airstrip? The short answer is Yes. Even today, satellites don’t cover every square kilometre of the Earth.”