A Japan Coast Guard (right) studies a map with a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency pilot in JCG’s Gulfstream V Jet aircraft customized for search and rescue operations over the waters of the South China Sea yesterday.
KUALA LUMPUR: A missing Malaysian jetliner was likely steered deliberately to a course that could have taken it anywhere from central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean, Malaysia’s prime minister said yesterday, in a dramatic revelation that intensified scrutiny of the 239 crew and passengers.
Minutes after Malaysian leader Najib Razak outlined investigators’ latest findings about flight MH370 at a news conference, police began searching the house of the aircraft’s 53-year-old captain for any evidence that he could have been involved in foul play.
Najib, giving his first statement at a news conference since the day that the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER vanished from radar screens a week ago, confirmed reports that investigators believe somebody cut off the plane’s communications and steered it west, far from its scheduled route to Beijing. “In view of this latest development the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” he said.
“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.”
Search operations by navies and aircraft from more than a dozen nations were immediately called off in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea to the east of Malaysia, where the plane dropped off civilian air traffic control screens at 1.22am last Saturday.
Najib said new data showed the last communication between the missing plane and satellites at 8.11am, almost seven hours after it turned back and crossed the Malay peninsula. The data did not show whether the plane was still flying or its location at that time, presenting searchers with a daunting array of possible last locations. Seven hours more flying time would likely have taken it to the limit of its fuel load.
Najib said the plane’s final communication with satellites placed it somewhere 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 vast southern Indian Ocean.
“Clearly, the search for MH370 has entered a new phase,” said Najib, whose government has come under criticism for its slow release of information surrounding what is one of the most baffling mysteries in aviation history.
But investigators have increasingly discounted the possibility of an accident due to the deliberate way it was diverted and had its communications switched off.
Investigative sources said on Friday they believed the plane was following a commonly used navigational route when it was last spotted early yesterday, northwest of Malaysia.
Their suspicion has hardened that it was flown off-course by the pilot or copilot, or someone else with detailed knowledge of how to fly and navigate a large commercial aircraft.
No details have emerged of any passengers or crew with militant links or psychological problems that could explain a motive for sabotaging the flight.
As the search enters its second week, several governments are using imagery satellites - platforms that take high definition photos - while data from private sector communications satellites is also being examined.
China alone says it has deployed 10 satellites in the search in a pointed reminder of its growing influence in space.
“It is like finding a needle in a haystack and the area is enormous. Finding anything rapidly is going to be very difficult,” said Marc Pircher, director of the French space centre in Toulouse, run by the country’s CNES space agency.
“The area and scale of the task is such that 99 percent of what you are getting are false alarms”.
The corridors given by Najib represent a satellite track, which appears as an arc on a map. The plane did not necessarily follow the corridor, but was at some point along its path at the moment the signal was sent.
Officials at Kazakhstan’s state air navigation service were not available for comment while in Turkmenistan, state aviation officials referred queries to the Foreign Ministry.
Earlier, a source familiar with official US assessments of electronic signals sent to geostationary satellites operated by Britain’s Inmarsat 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.
If so, just finding the plane - let alone recovering the “black box” data and cockpit voice recorders that hold the key to the mystery - would be a huge challenge.
The featureless expanse of the Indian Ocean has an average depth of more than 12,000 feet, or two miles. That’s deeper than the Atlantic, where it took two years to locate wreckage on the seabed from an Air France plane that vanished in 2009 even though floating debris quickly pointed to the crash site. Reuters