Scrutiny focuses on missing Malaysia Airlines plane's pilots
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.