Kuala Lumpur: Police began searching the home of the pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight on Saturday, after the country’s prime minister confirmed the plane was suspected to have been deliberately diverted, a senior police official said.
Police officers arrived at the home of the captain, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, on Saturday afternoon, shortly after Prime Minister Najib Razak ended his news conference.
Investigators had confirmed that an aircraft tracked by military radar was the lost Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, after its communications were likely switched off before it reached the east coast of Malaysia a week ago, Najib said.
Plane ‘deliberately’ diverted
As the unprecedented search for Flight MH370 and its 239 passengers and crew entered its second week, Najib told a news conference that the hunt for wreckage around the scheduled flight path to the east of Malaysia was being called off.
“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,” Najib said.
The fate the of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 has been shrouded in mystery since it disappeared off Malaysia’s east coast less than an hour into a March 8 scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
But investigators have increasing focused on the possibility that it was flown off-course by the one of the pilots or someone else on board with detailed knowledge of how to fly and navigate a large commercial aircraft.
Najib said new data showed the last communication between the missing plane and satellites at 8:11am Malaysian time.
That is almost seven hours after it dropped off civilian air traffic control screens at 1:22am last Saturday, less than an hour after take-off. It was flying across the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side of Malaysia towards Vietnam.
Najib said satellite data confirmed that an unidentified aircraft that later appeared on military radar off Malaysia’s west coast before going out of range at 2:15 a.m. was flight MH370.
“Up until the point at which it left military primary radar coverage, these movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” he said.
He said analysis of the plane’s last communication with satellites placed it in one of two corridors: a northern corridor stretching from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, or a southern corridor stretching from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
Earlier, a source familiar with official US assessments of electronic signals sent to satellites said it appeared most likely the plane turned south over the Indian Ocean, where it would presumably have run out of fuel and crashed into the sea.
The other interpretation was that Flight MH370 continued to fly to the northwest and headed over Indian territory.
The source added that it was believed unlikely the plane flew for any length of time over India because that country has strong air defence and radar coverage and that should have allowed authorities there to see the plane and intercept it.
Two sources familiar with the investigation in Malaysia told Reuters on Friday that military radar data showed the aircraft following a commonly used commercial, navigational route towards the Middle East and Europe.
That course – headed into the Andaman Sea and towards the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean – could only have been set deliberately, either by flying the jet manually or by programming the auto-pilot.
The disappearance of the Boeing 777 – one of the safest commercial jets in service – is shaping into one of the most baffling mysteries in aviation history.
It is extremely rare for a modern passenger aircraft to disappear once it has reached cruising altitude, as MH370 had.
When that does happen, the debris from a crash is usually found close to its last known position relatively quickly.
In this case, there has been no trace of the plane, nor any sign of wreckage, as the navies and military aircraft of more than a dozen countries scour the seas on both sides of peninsular Malaysia.
The maximum range of the Boeing 777 is 7,725 nautical miles or 14,305 km. It is not clear how much fuel the aircraft was carrying though it would have been enough to reach its scheduled destination, Beijing, a flight of five hours and 50 minutes.
Prime Minister Razak said on Saturday that Malaysia was ending a search in the South China Sea for a vanished jetliner after investigations indicated the missing plane likely turned far to the west.
“We are ending our operation in the South China Sea and reassessing the deployment of our assets,” Najib told reporters.
Plane hijacked, official says
A Malaysian investigation into the missing flight 370 has concluded that one or more people with flying experience switched off communications devices and deliberately steered the airliner off-course, a Malaysian government official involved in the investigation said on Saturday.
The official called the disappearance a hijacking, though he said no motive has been established and no demands have been made known. It’s not yet clear where the plane ended up, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief the media.
The official said a deliberate takeover of the plane was no longer a theory. “It is conclusive,” he said, indicating that investigators were ruling out mechanical failure or pilot error in the disappearance.
He said evidence that led to the conclusion were signs that the plane’s communications were switched off deliberately, data about the flight path and indications the plane was steered in a way to avoid detection by radar.
The Boeing 777’s communication with the ground was severed just under one hour into a Malaysia Airlines flight March 8 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Another US official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators looking for the plane have run out of clues except for a type of satellite data that has never been used before to find a missing plane, and is very inexact.
The data consists of attempts by an Inmarsat satellite to identify a broad area where the plane might be in case a messaging system aboard the plane should need to connect with the satellite, said the official.
The official compared the location attempts, called a “handshake,” to someone driving around with their cellphone not in use. As the phone from passes from the range of one cellphone tower to another, the towers note that the phone is in range in case messages need to be sent.
In the case of the Malaysian plane, there were successful attempts by the satellite to roughly locate the Boeing 777 about once an hour over four to five hours, the official said. “This is all brand new to us,” the official said. “We’ve never had to use satellite handshaking as the best possible source of information.”
The handshake does not transmit any data on the plane’s altitude, airspeed or other information that might help in locating it, the official said. Instead, searchers are trying to use the handshakes to triangulate the general area of where the plane last was known to have been at the last satellite check, the official said.
“It is telling us the airplane was continuing to operate,” the official said, plus enough information on location so that the satellite will know how many degrees to turn to adjust its antenna to pick up any messages from the plane.
The official confirmed prior reports that following the loss of contact with the plane’s transponder, the plane turned west. A transponder emits signals that are picked up by radar providing a unique identifier for each plane along with altitude.
Malaysian military radar continued to pick up the plane as a whole “paintskin” – a radar blip that has no unique identifier – until it traveled beyond the reach of radar, which is about 320 kilometers offshore, the official said.
The New York Times, quoting American officials and others familiar with the investigation, said radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appear to show the airliner climbing to 13,700 metres, higher than a Boeing 777’s approved limit, soon after it disappeared from civilian radar, and making a sharp turn to the west.
The radar track then shows the plane descending unevenly to an altitude of 7,000 metres, below normal cruising levels, before rising again and flying northwest over the Strait of Malacca toward the Indian Ocean, the Times reported.