KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The Malaysian jetliner missing for more than a week was deliberately diverted and continued flying for more than six hours after severing contact with the ground, meaning it could have gone as far northwest as Kazakhstan or into the Indian Ocean’s southern reaches, Malaysia’s leader said Saturday.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s statement confirmed days of mounting speculation that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to Beijing was not accidental. It also refocused the investigation into the flight’s 12-person crew and 227 passengers, underlining the complicated task for searchers who already have been scouring vast areas of ocean.
Clearly, the search for MH370 has entered a new phase, Najib said at a televised news conference.
Najib 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 Saturday, a Malaysian official said 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, reading from a written statement but not taking any questions.
Police on Saturday went to the Kuala Lumpur homes of the pilot and co-pilot of the missing plane, according to a guard and several local reporters. Authorities have said they will investigate the pilots as part of their probe but have released no information about how they are progressing.
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 departed for an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing at 12:40 a.m. March 8. Its communications with civilian air controllers were severed about 1:20 a.m., 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 (ACARS) – was partially disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia, Najib said. Shortly afterward, someone on board switched off the aircraft’s transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic controllers.
Najib confirmed that Malaysian air force defense 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.
These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane, Najib said.
U.S. aviation safety experts say the shutdown of communications systems makes it clear the missing Malaysia Airlines jet was taken over by someone who knew how the plane worked.
To turn off the transponder, someone in the cockpit would have to turn a knob with multiple selections to the off position while pressing down at the same time, said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. That’s something a pilot would know, but it could also be learned by someone who researched the plane on the Internet, he said.
The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) has two aspects, Goglia said. The information part of the system was shut down, but not the transmission part. In most planes, the information section can be shut down by hitting cockpit switches in sequence in order to get to a computer screen where an option must be selected using a keypad, said Goglia, an expert on aircraft maintenance.
That’s also something a pilot would know how to do, but that could also be discovered through research, he said. But to turn off the other transmission portion of the ACARS, it would be necessary to go to an electronics bay beneath the cockpit. That’s something a pilot wouldn’t normally know how to do, Goglia said. The Malaysia plane’s ACARS transmitter continued to send out blips that were recorded by satellite once an hour for four to five hours after the transponder was turned off. The blips don’t contain any messages or data, but the satellite can tell in a very broad way what region the blips are coming from.
Malaysia’s prime minister said the last confirmed signal between the plane and a satellite came at 8:11 a.m. – seven 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 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 U.S. 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 have put the plane over the Indian Ocean, with an average depth of 12,762 feet and thousands of miles from the nearest land mass.
Britain-based aviation security consultant Chris Yates thought 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.