Share This Page

Scrutiny focuses on missing Malaysia Airlines plane's pilots

| Monday, March 17, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — One of the Malaysian jetliner's communications systems had been disabled when someone at the controls calmly said the last words heard from the missing Boeing 777, authorities said on Sunday, adding to suspicions that one or both of the pilots were involved in the flight's disappearance.

Investigators examined a flight simulator confiscated from the home of one of the pilots and dug through the background of all 239 people on board, as well as the ground crew that serviced the plane.

The Malaysia Airlines jet took off from Kuala Lumpur in the wee hours of March 8, headed to Beijing. On Saturday, the Malaysian government announced findings that strongly suggested the plane was deliberately diverted and may have flown as far north as Central Asia or south into the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean.

Authorities have said someone on board the plane first disabled one of its communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS — about 40 minutes after takeoff. The ACARS equipment sends data about the jet's engines and other data to the airline.

About 14 minutes later, the transponder that identifies the plane to commercial radar systems was shut down. The fact that both systems went dark separately offered strong evidence that the plane's disappearance was deliberate.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference that the final, reassuring words from the cockpit — “All right, good night” — were spoken to air traffic controllers once the ACARS system was shut off. Whoever spoke did not mention any trouble on board.

Air force Maj. Gen. Affendi Buang said he did not know whether it was the pilot or co-pilot who spoke.

Given the expanse of land and water that would need to be searched, finding wreckage could take months or the plane might never be located. Establishing what happened with any certainty probably would require evidence from cockpit voice recordings and the plane's flight-data recorders.

The search area includes 11 countries the plane might have flown over, Hishammuddin said. The number of countries involved in the operation increased from 14 to 25.

“The search was already a highly complex, multinational effort,” he said. “It has now become even more difficult.”

The search effort initially focused on the relatively shallow waters of the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, where the plane was first thought to be. Hishammuddin said he had asked governments to hand over sensitive radar and satellite data to try to get a better idea of the plane's final movements.

With more information, he said, the search zone could be narrowed “to an area that is more feasible.”

Malaysia is leading the search for the plane and the investigation into its disappearance. In the United States, Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to President Obama, told NBC's “Meet the Press” that the FBI was supporting the criminal probe.

Pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the captain, was a supporter of a Malaysian opposition political party that is locked in a bitter dispute with the government, according to postings on his Facebook page and a friend, Peter Chong, who is a party member.

Chong said he last saw Zaharie a week before the pilot left on the flight for Beijing and they agreed to meet on his return to organize a shopping trip for poor children.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.