Malaysia flight disappearance looking more like a sinister act

The prime minister says it appears somebody on board deliberately shut down communications and tracking systems of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Police searched the pilot's home Saturday. 

Wong Maye-E
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, said Saturday that investigators believe the missing Malaysian airliner's communications were deliberately disabled.

Police searched the home of the pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 on Saturday, shortly after Prime Minister Najib Razak said it appeared somebody aboard had deliberately shut down the plane’s communications and tracking systems and turned it away from its intended flight path.

Though Mr. Najib would not speculate whether the jet had been hijacked, he said that its unusual deviation westward  was “consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane.”

Malaysian investigators “have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” he added.

The government has called off the weeklong search for wreckage of MH370 in the South China Sea, where the plane was initially thought to have disappeared, Najib said. New evidence from a satellite indicates that the plane turned west from its route to Beijing and flew on undetected for nearly seven hours into the Indian Ocean, and possibly beyond, he said.

That suggested that somebody with expert knowledge of how to fly and navigate a Boeing 777 was at the controls.

The last contact between a satellite and the plane’s antenna, which continued to “ping” signals even though the transponder and ACARS tracking system were dead, occurred at 08.11 last Saturday morning.

The flight had dropped off civilian air traffic control radar screens at 01.22, investigators have said, less than an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur.

The satellite data offers no precision about where the plane was at the time of its last hourly “ping.” Najib said the search would be redirected to two enormous new areas: a northern corridor stretching from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan near the Caspian Sea, and a southern corridor stretching from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.

The northern route would likely have taken the plane over or near a number of countries with well developed air defense and radar capabilities, such as India and Pakistan, which would have been expected to pick up traces of its passage.

If MH370 had flown that way until its fuel reserves were exhausted, it could have crashed somewhere in central Asia or western China. There have been no reports of any such crash.

The southern route would have been largely over open water in the southern Indian Ocean.

Najib confirmed that a radar blip picked up by a Malaysian Air Force ground station in the early hours of last Saturday morning but unidentified at the time did in fact correspond to MH370 heading west and then northwest at cruising altitude.

Reuters news agency reported on Friday that the military radar data showed the aircraft following a commonly used navigational route, from way station to way station, which would have been possible only if the plane was being steered manually by a knowledgeable pilot or if the auto-pilot had been programmed to follow that route.

Najib said on Saturday that satellite information suggested “with a high degree of certainty” that the plane’s ACARS tracking system, transmitting information to the ground about the health of its systems, “was disabled just before the aircraft reached the East coast of peninsular Malaysia” while it was still on its planned route.

Shortly afterwards, near the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control, still on course, the aircraft’s transponder, which identifies a plane to air traffic controllers, was switched off, he added.

It was then that the plane veered sharply westward, heading towards the Straits of Malacca and then the Indian Ocean.

The pilot and co-pilot

The plane’s experienced pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had logged more than 18,000 flight hours and was known to friends and colleagues as a public spirited man who loved his job.

A father of three, Capt. Zaharie posted a video on YouTube which he said was “a public service” explaining how to adjust a refrigerator in order to save energy. In the video he is seen sitting in front of a flight simulator which he had built at home.

Last year, before Malaysia’s parliamentary elections, he volunteered to campaign for Sivarasa Rahsia, who won a seat for the opposition People’s Justice Party. “He was a very friendly man, very helpful,” says Mr. Sivarasa.

Zaharie’s family, according to someone who knows them, have given up hope that he will be found alive and have conducted Islamic prayers for the dead.

The co-pilot, Fariq Hamid, who recently qualified to fly a Boeing 777-200, the sort of plane that disappeared last Saturday, had apparently misbehaved on an earlier flight. A South African woman has said that in 2011 he invited her and a female friend to join him and another pilot in the cockpit of a plane flying from Phuket, Thailand, to Kuala Lumpur and that they stayed there throughout the flight.

Malaysia Airlines said in a statement earlier this week that it was “shocked” by the revelation.

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