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Focus turns to pilots as hunt for Malaysia jet widens

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-16

Attention focused on Sunday on the pilots and passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight after it was revealed that someone with intimate knowledge of the cockpit seized control of the plane.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Saturday that it appeared someone cut communications with the ground and deliberately diverted Flight 370 after it left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8. The Boeing 777 carried a 12-person crew and 227 passengers.

Satellite data suggest it flew for at least 7 ½ hours and that it could have reached as far northwest as Kazakhstan or deep into the southern Indian Ocean, Najib said.

“Clearly the search for MH370 has entered a new phase,” Najib told a televised news conference. “It is widely understood that this has been a situation without precedent.”

Experts say 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 was that one of the pilots wanted to divert the plane for some reason, such as suicide, piracy or hijacking.

Najib stressed that investigators were looking into all avenues. “In view of this latest development, the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” Najib told reporters.

Malaysian police said they were also investigating engineers who worked on the plane.

Police on Saturday went to the Kuala Lumpur homes of both the pilot and co-pilot and examined the chief pilot’s flight simulator, the government said on Sunday, cautioning that it was a routine measure.

Malaysian police have 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.

Zaharie, who joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981 and had more than 18,000 hours of flying experience, was known as an avid aviation enthusiast who had set up an elaborate flight simulator at home.

Fariq was contemplating marriage after having just graduated to the cockpit of a Boeing 777. He has drawn scrutiny after the revelation that he and another pilot invited two female passengers to sit in the cockpit during a flight in 2011.

‘Foot-dragging’

Two-thirds of the plane’s passengers were Chinese, and China’s government has been under pressure to give anxious relatives firm news of the aircraft’s fate. Beijing’s state media expressed irritation on Saturday at what it described as Malaysia’s foot-dragging in releasing information.

At a hotel near Beijing’s airport, some relatives said they felt deceived at not being told earlier about the plane emitting signals for 7 ½ hours.

“We are going through a roller coaster, and we feel helpless and powerless,” said a woman, who declined to give her name.

Najib, at his news conference, said he understood the need for families to receive information, but that his government wanted to release only fully corroborated details.

Investigators now have a high degree of certainty that one of the plane’s communications systems - the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) - was partially disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia, Najib said.

Shortly afterwards, 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 westwards, crossing over Peninsular Malaysia into the northern stretches of the Strait of Malacca. Authorities previously had said this radar data could not be verified.

“These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Najib said, saying that a team of Malaysian, US and British aviation investigators concurred on the findings so far.

Although the aircraft was flying virtually blind to air traffic controllers at this point, onboard equipment continued to send “pings” to satellites.

Last signal

Najib said the last confirmed signal between the plane and a satellite came at 8:11 am, 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.

Najib said authorities had determined that the plane’s last communication with a satellite was in one of two possible arcs, or “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 theoretically have taken the plane through China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan - which hosts US military bases - and Central Asia, but it was unclear how it could fly through the region undetected.

The region is also home to extremist Islamist groups, unstable governments and remote, sparsely populated areas.

Flying south would have put the plane over the Indian Ocean, one of the deepest and most remote expanses of water in the world. It has an average depth of 3,890 metres (12,762 feet) and is thousands of kilometres (miles) from the nearest land mass.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS, AFP)

Date created : 2014-03-16

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