Malaysia doubles scale of search

March 17, 2014 - 4:58:14 am

Security guards stand in front of the main gate of the house where captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah lived, in Shah Alam, yesterday.

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian authorities yesterday examined a flight simulator that was confiscated from the home of one of the missing jetliner’s pilots and asked governments to divulge sensitive radar data, warning that without it locating the plane in what is now a massive search area might be impossible.

As investigators dug through the background of all 239 people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the ground crew that serviced the plane, a new detail emerged that strengthened speculation that one or both of the pilots were involved in the aircraft’s disappearance more than a week ago.

Officials revealed that the final words from the cockpit — “All right, good night” — were spoken to air traffic controllers after the plane’s data communication system had been partially disabled. The pilots did not mention any trouble on board, suggesting they may have been misleading ground control.

Asked what the significance of this was, Air Force Maj Gen Affendi Buang told reporters: “This will tell you something ... because this is something not normal that the pilot would do.” Affendi said he did not know whether it was the pilot or co-pilot who spoke to air traffic controllers. That uncertainty also opened the possibility that someone else spoke those words, though he did not mention this scenario.

The Boeing 777 went missing less than an hour into a March 8 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing as it entered Vietnamese airspace. On Saturday, Malaysia’s government confirmed that 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.

Given the expanse of land and water that might need to be searched, the wreckage of the plane might take months — or longer — to find, or might never be located. Establishing what happened with any degree of certainty will likely need key information, including cockpit voice recordings, from the plane’s flight data recorders.

The search area now includes 11 countries the plane might have flown over, Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said yesterday, adding that the number of countries involved in the operation had increased from 14 to 25. 

Investigators are trying to answer these questions: If the two pilots were involved in the disappearance, were they working together or alone, or with one or more of the passengers or crew? Did they fly the plane under duress or of their own volition? Did one or more of the passengers manage to break into the cockpit, or use the threat of violence to gain entry and then pilot the plane? And what possible motive could there be for flying off with the plane?

Malaysia’s police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar said police confiscated the elaborate flight simulator that one of the pilots, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had built in his home and reassembled it in their offices to study it for clues. While most aviation experts believe the plane has crashed, there is a very small possibility it may have landed somewhere and be relatively intact. 

Zaharie, the pilot, 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.