Malaysia investigators take closer look at flight crew

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian authorities said Sunday that the number of countries involved in the search for the missing jetliner has increased from 14 to 25, as the investigation shifted its focus toward the actions of the flight crew.

Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Sunday that 11 more countries joined the search after it was determined that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may have gone as far north as Central Asia, flying over several countries.

"This is a significant recalibration of the search," he said.

Authorities were hoping for more satellite data that would narrow the search, which also includes the Indian Ocean, he said.

Meanwhile, police chief Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar said he had requested countries with citizens on board the plane to investigate their background. He said some had already done this and found nothing suspicious, but he was waiting for others to respond.

The widening of the search for the jet follows authorities' revelation on Saturday that someone on board the vanished jet made a series of highly technical actions to deliberately hide the plane from modern detection systems.

The homes of both the pilot and the co-pilot were searched on Saturday, and a flight simulator belonging to pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 59, is being examined, Hishammuddin said. Authorities are also investigating the engineers who worked on the plane.

The South China Morning Post reported Sunday that Zaharie has close ties with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was recently sentenced to prison on a charge of sodomy, which the opposition has appealed. Speaking to USA TODAY, a close friend of Zaharie's, Peter Chong, said Zaharie does support the opposition but that the reports that he may have had a role in diverting the plane were "not true."

"He is a political activist, yes. And yes, he was in court for Anwar's trial and he is our strong supporter, but that does not make him a terrorist," said Chong.

Nirmala Nadarajah, a former Malaysian Airlines flight attendant, agreed and lashed out at the media for speculating about Zaharie, whom she described as a "good, kind man."

"He loved flying. That is his biggest passion. And he was always caring. He was always concerned about being alert and fit because he considered the safety of his passengers seriously. This investigation is utter rubbish. He would never ever have hijacked the plane," she said.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday that communications on the flight missing since March 8 were disabled due to "deliberate action by someone on the plane" and that the last known signal from the airliner came more than seven hours after takeoff.

The revelation came amid an intensifying search involving dozens of planes and ships in an ever-widening area where the plane may have gone down. Military and government experts on Saturday pored over satellite and radar data that may shed light on the fate of the plane but so far there is no trace of debris.

Speaking at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Razak said investigators were making calculations to try to determine exactly how far the airliner traveled after its last point of contact.

According to new satellite data analyzed by the FAA, NTSB, AAIB and Malaysian authorities, the plane's communications from the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System were cut off just before the aircraft reached the east coast of the peninsula of Malaysia, and the aircraft's transponder was turned off shortly thereafter, near the border of Malaysia and Vietnam, he said.

Flight 370 departed from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing at 12:40 a.m. on March 8 with 239 people on board. A multinational search effort involving 14 countries, 43 ships and 58 aircraft has turned up no trace of the Boeing 777, despite an expansive search that has widened with each passing day.

China, where the bulk of the passengers were from, expressed irritation over what it described as Malaysia's foot-dragging in releasing information about the search.

Investigators now have a high degree of certainty that one of the plane's communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System — was partially disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia, Najib said. Shortly afterward, someone on board switched off the aircraft's transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic controllers.

Najib confirmed that Malaysian air force defense radar picked up traces of the plane turning back westward, crossing over Peninsular Malaysia into the northern stretches of the Strait of Malacca. Authorities previously had said this radar data could not be verified.

"These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane," Najib said.

Although the aircraft was flying virtually blind to air traffic controllers at this point, onboard equipment continued to send "pings" to satellites.

U.S. aviation safety experts say the shutdown of communications systems makes it clear the missing Malaysia Airlines jet was taken over by someone who knew how the plane worked.

To turn off the transponder, someone in the cockpit would have to turn a knob with multiple selections to the "off" position while pressing down at the same time, said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. That's something a pilot would know, but it could also be learned by someone who researched the plane on the Internet, he said.

ACARS has two aspects, Goglia said. The information part of the system was shut down, but not the transmission part. In most planes, the information section can be shut down by hitting cockpit switches in sequence in order to get to a computer screen where an option must be selected using a keypad, said Goglia, an expert on aircraft maintenance.

That's also something a pilot would know how to do, but that could also be discovered through research, he said.

But to turn off the other transmission portion of the ACARS, it would be necessary to go to an electronics bay beneath the cockpit. That's something a pilot wouldn't normally know how to do, Goglia said. The Malaysia plane's ACARS transmitter continued to send out blips that were recorded by satellite once an hour for four to five hours after the transponder was turned off. The blips don't contain any messages or data, but the satellite can tell in a very broad way what region the blips are coming from.

Malaysia's prime minister said the last confirmed signal between the plane and a satellite came at 8:11 a.m. — 7 hours and 31 minutes after takeoff. This was more than five hours later than the previous time given by Malaysian authorities as the possible last contact.

Airline officials have said the plane had enough fuel to fly for up to about eight hours.

The last confirmed communication from the plane to a satellite was 8:11 a.m. Malaysia time, Razak said.

The prime minister said the search for the flight has entered a "new phase," focusing on two possible corridors — a northern corridor from the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to northern Thailand, and a southern corridor from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.

The prime minister also confirmed reports that circulated earlier this week that the plane veered off its course toward Beijing, turning back westward and crossing over peninsular Malaysia into the northern stretches of the Strait of Malacca.

Razak announced Saturday that search operations were ending in the South China Sea and investigators are refocusing their attention on the pilots and passengers aboard Flight 370. He added that Malaysia was "working with the relevant countries to request all information relevant to the search, including radar data."

Razak would not confirm a hijacking.

"Despite media reports that the plane was hijacked, I wish to be very clear: We are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate from its original flight path," he said.

Razak also defended Malaysia's handling of the investigation, saying that they have followed up each and every lead.

According to a report by Reuters, authorities searched the home of the pilot shortly after the prime minister's statement.

"For the families and friends of those involved, we hope this new information brings us one step closer to finding the plane," Razak said.

Indian navy ships supported by long-range surveillance planes and helicopters scoured Andaman Sea islands for a third day on Saturday without finding evidence of the missing jet, officials said. On Sunday, India said it had suspended its search while awaiting word from Malaysia on where to look next.

The Indian navy's coordinated search has so far covered more than 100,579 square miles in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal "without any sighting or detection," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

India intensified its search on Saturday by deploying two recently acquired P8i long-range maritime patrol and one C-130J Hercules aircraft to the region. Short-range maritime reconnaissance Dornier aircraft have also been deployed, the ministry said.

India used heat sensors on flights over hundreds of uninhabited Andaman Sea islands that stretch south of Burma, also known as Myanmar, covering an area 447 miles long and 32 miles wide. Only 37 of 572 islands are inhabited, with the rest covered in dense forests.

The island chain has four airstrips, but only the main airport in Port Blair can handle a large commercial jet.

Three days ago, six Indian navy and coast guard ships, plus reconnaissance planes, began searching eastern parts of the Andaman Sea. On Friday, they headed west of the Andaman and Nicobar islands near the Bay of Bengal.

Bangladesh has joined the search effort in the Bay of Bengal with two patrol aircraft and two frigates, said Mahbubul Haque Shakil, an aide of Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.

There are more than 500 islands in that chain, many of which are richly forested and uninhabited.

Contributing: Mageswary Ramakrishnan; Associated Press


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