Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 search: Focus on pilots and thousands of square miles

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Efforts to find missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 have begun to focus on someone in the cockpit – one of the pilots or an intruder – as the search expands to 35,000 square miles.

Vincent Thian/AP
Acting minister for transport Hishamuddin Hussein at a press conference regarding missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner MH370, Sunday. Authorities are investigating the pilots after it was established that whoever flew the Boeing 777 had intimate knowledge of the cockpit and knew how to avoid detection.

A week into efforts to find missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, the investigation is moving in two opposite directions. The focus on cause has narrowed to someone in the cockpit, and the geographical area of search has widened exponentially.

Government officials in Kuala Lampur have all but ruled out catastrophic mechanical failure or an explosion caused by terrorists. The Boeing 777 apparently flew for hours in a direction far away from its intended course.

Given that electronic signals from the aircraft went dark in succession – not at the same time – it’s assumed that someone in the cockpit who knew what they were doing turned them off.

That narrows the focus to someone among the 239 passengers and crew – most likely one or both of the pilots.

"One thing we do know, this was not an accident,” Rep. Michael McCaul, (R) of Texas, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It was an intentional, deliberate act, to bring down this airplane. And the question is who is behind that.”

“From all the information I’ve been briefed on, something was going on with the pilot,” Rep. McCaul said. “I think this all leads towards the cockpit.”
As the search continues, the area combed by aircraft and ships has expanded to 35,000 square miles, including 11 countries MH370 might have flown over. The number of countries involved in search efforts has grown to 25.

Search parameters involve two possible flight corridors: a northern one stretching from Thailand to Kazakhstan and a southern one from Indonesia towards the southern Indian Ocean, Malaysian government authorities said Sunday.

"The search was already a highly complex, multinational effort. It has now become even more difficult," Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference.

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 will? Did one or more of the passengers manage to break into the cockpit or use the threat of violence to gain entry and then seize the plane? And what possible motive could there be for diverting the jet?

Malaysia's police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, said he asked countries with citizens on board the plane to investigate their backgrounds, looking for anyone with terrorism ties, aviation skills, or prior contact with the pilots. He said that the intelligence agencies of some countries had already done so and found nothing suspicious, but he was waiting for others to respond.

Police searched the homes of both pilots Saturday, confiscating the elaborate flight simulator that one of the pilots, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had built in his home. Malaysian police were also investigating engineers and ground staff who may have had contact with the plane before it took off.

Through it all, Malaysia’s role in leading the investigation and search has come in for criticism.

"Where was the Malaysian air force in all this?" former RAF pilot and aerospace analyst Andrew Brookes told the BBC. "Ever since 9/11, air defenses around the world have been on alert for a hijacked airliner aiming for a prestige target. And few targets are more prestigious than the twin Petronas towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur."

When MH370 apparently took a different course after it had reached its cruising altitude, this should have alerted the Malaysian military, Mr. Brookes said. "When this bizarre saga is over, the Malaysian government and air force will have some serious matters to address, not least in the apparent gaps in wide area surveillance of their air space.”

While the search for a cause of MH370’s disappearance has narrowed to the pilots, some observers urge caution.

“I'd be wary of putting forward just a single hypothesis like that,” John Negroponte, a former US ambassador and first Director of National Intelligence, said on CNN's “State of the Union with Candy Crowley” Sunday. “I mean, for all I know, we're going to wake up tomorrow and there's going to be some very startling new fact, totally contrary to all the prior speculation, that is going to help explain this event more easily.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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