“Yes, we’re looking at it,” Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur today. He said he “cannot say for the moment” if the pilots had financial or personal issues.
It’s among a number of theories still open with no trace found of the Boeing Co. 777-200 plane, which vanished March 8 with 239 people on board. Data indicated the plane was somewhere along an arc that reached as far as Kazakhstan in the north to the two-mile deep waters off Australia in the south. U.S. officials have said the most likely location of the plane’s final transmission was in the Indian Ocean about 1,000 miles west of Perth.
Satellite pings that weren’t turned off when other communications were cut showed Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight 370 operated for almost seven hours after last making contact on March 8, MalaysiaPrime Minister Najib Razak has said. That may have taken the plane more than 3,000 miles from where it was last tracked west of Malaysia and pushed it to the limits of its fuel load, if it was airborne the whole period.
Police searched the homes of the pilot and co-pilot March 15 to help answer why the jet was deliberately flown off its course, racing against time as the trail of isolated signals caught during the journey risks going cold.
The longest period in modern aviation history between an airliner disappearance and initial findings of debris was seven years ago, when Adam Air Flight 574 disappeared off the coast of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi. The Boeing 737-400, operated by PT Adam Skyconnection Airlines, lost contact with air traffic control Jan. 1, 2007. Only 10 days later was any wreckage found.
Australia dispatched an AP-3C Orion aircraft to look north and west of the Cocos Islands, chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley said in an e-mailed statement. The Cocos are about 2,000 miles northwest of Perth.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott discussed the search plan with Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak, who asked Australia to take responsibility for the southern part of the search zone.
Malaysian investigators are treating the northern and southern search zones with equal importance even as U.S. investigators are growing more convinced the latter is more most likely, said two people in the U.S. government who are familiar with the data. Najib was told that is the most promising lead, one of the people said.
The “most probable” theory is the plane is beneath the Indian Ocean, though there isn’t physical evidence to make that conclusion, U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said March 16 on CBS television’s “Face the Nation.”
The area where the aircraft may be is “in the middle of nowhere, more or less,” said Rhys Arangio, operations and compliance officer for Austral Fisheries Pty., a Perth-based seafood company.Storm fronts will bring waves about 10 meters high comparable to those where Austral usually operates, around Heard Island in the Southern Ocean, he said.
“On the average day it may be flat or a few-meter swells,” he said. “If they get lucky, there’s every chance it might not be horrible for a few weeks at a time.”
The area is “pretty sparsely populated”, with some container shipping from Africa to Australia plying the route as well as tuna fleets and some trawlers, he said.
Australia’s radar network includes a long-range system capable of detecting air targets. A base station in Laverton, Western Australia state has a range of about 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) covering most of the ocean south of Java and west from Perth, according to the Defense Ministry’s website.
Asked whether Australia had picked up signals consistent with the aircraft on its Jindalee Operational Radar Network, which covers large swathes of the southern Indian Ocean, Leonie Kolmar, a spokeswoman for the Australian Defence Department, said the department “won’t be providing comment” on the military surveillance system.
Even if the aircraft flew within maximum range of Australia’s JORN radar system, it’s possible that it wouldn’t have been picked up, according to Andrew Davies, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a government-funded think tank.
The range of the radar “depends on the state of the ionosphere,” the atmospheric layer that long-range radar systems use to help detect objects beyond the horizon, he said. The early morning hours when the aircraft may have passed within range “is a difficult time” for such systems, he said. “The atmosphere is starting to warm up and the ionosphere is a bit turbulent.”
In addition, the technology is designed to detect objects moving toward the radar antenna. “Things that are moving towards or away from the radar are much easier to detect than things that are moving sideways” as the Malaysian Air plane appears to have traveled, he said.
Malaysian officials refuted criticism by U.S. Representative Peter King that they weren’t cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol and not been as forthcoming as it should be with information. King, a new York Republican, leads the House homeland security panel on counterterrorism and intelligence.
“My understanding is that Malaysia is not really cooperating at all,” King said March 16 on ABC’s “This Week” program. “They’re very reluctant to lay what they have out on the table.”
Malaysia has cooperated with the FBI and Interpol from the start, Hishammuddin said at the press conference.
The jet made its last satellite contact at 8:11 a.m. on March 8, according to Najib. Malaysian officials previously said the plane was last tracked by its transponder, a device that helps radar find its location more precisely, at 1:30 a.m.
At his press conference, Najib said the data showed with a “great degree of certainty” that the plane’s system known as Acars was turned off, followed by the transponder a short time later. Without a transponder, radar can’t identify a plane and has difficulty locating it precisely.
Whoever was piloting the plane also commanded its flight-management system to make a turn to the west. That turn was reported to the airline by some of the final data sent by the Acars system, the person familiar with the investigation said.
Beyond an expanding search area, the investigation has turned toward the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and Fariq Abdul Hamid, the first officer. Fariq, 27, joined the airline in 2007, while Zaharie had worked at the carrier since 1981 and logged 18,365 flying hours.
Initial investigations indicated that the co-pilot spoke the last words, Malaysian Airline System Bhd. Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said today. “Alright, good night” were the last words from the cockpit, which came in at 1:19 a.m. as Malaysian air traffic controllers prepared to hand the plane over to Vietnamese counterparts, he said.
The pilot and co-pilot had not requested to fly together, Hishammuddin said.
The airline can’t determine when the plane’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, which transmits text messages and data to and from planes, was disabled, Jauhari said.
The Acars system was disabled just before Flight 370 left Malaysia’s east coast and its transponder was switched off near the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese air-traffic control, Najib had said at a March 15 briefing.
Someone sophisticated enough to understand the 777’s systems may have ordered the Acars shutdown, or one or both of the pilots may have hatched the plot, Patrick Veillette, a Park City, Utah, commercial pilot who has taught aviation safety, said in an interview.
The actions on the flight deck indicate a high level of training in aviation and the 777 specifically, Veillette said. “We’re not talking about sitting in a simulator or reading a book for an hour,” he said. “This would have required substantial training.”
The police have been investigating since March 8 all crew members, including the pilot and co-pilot, as well as ground staff handling the aircraft. Police said the four areas of focus are hijacking, sabotage, personal or psychological issues.
Zaharie displayed a passion for the Boeing (BA) jetliner that included construction of his own flight simulator using a computer program, according to an online post on a community of simulator enthusiasts. Police have taken the simulator from the pilot’s house for experts to examine.
To contact the reporters on this story: David Fickling in Sydney at firstname.lastname@example.org; Manirajan Ramasamy in Kuala Lumpur at email@example.com; Shamim Adam in Singapore at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy email@example.com Bernard Kohn, Steven Komarow