KUALA LUMPUR – Investigators believe someone aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 deliberately shut off its communications and tracking systems, turned the plane around and flew for nearly seven hours after it vanished, Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday.
Shortly after the prime minister finished speaking, police arrived at the home of the missing aircraft’s pilot to search for evidence, a senior police official said.
As the unprecedented search for Flight MH370 and its 239 passengers and crew entered its second week, Najib told a news conference the hunt for wreckage around the scheduled flight path to the east of Malaysia was being called off.
“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,” Najib said.
The fate the of the Boeing 777-200ER has been shrouded in mystery since it disappeared off Malaysia’s east coast less than an hour into a March 8 scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
But investigators have increasing focused on the possibility that it was flown off-course by the pilot or co-pilot, or someone else on board with detailed knowledge of how to fly and navigate a large commercial aircraft. Police officers arrived at the home of the captain, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, on Saturday afternoon. A senior Malaysian police official said they had gone to take evidence that could help with the investigation.
Najib said that new data showed the last communication between the missing plane and satellites at 8:11 a.m. Malaysian time. That is almost seven hours after it dropped off civilian air traffic control screens at 1:22 a.m. last Saturday, less than an hour after takeoff. It was flying across the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side of Malaysia toward Vietnam.
Najib said satellite data confirmed that an unidentified aircraft that later appeared on military radar off Malaysia’s west coast before going out of range at 2:15 a.m. was Flight MH370.
“Up until the point at which it left military primary radar coverage, these movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” he said.
He said analysis of the plane’s last communication with satellites placed it 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 southern Indian Ocean.
Earlier, a U.S. source familiar with the investigation said there was also discussion within Washington that the plane’s disappearance might have involved an act of piracy.
A source familiar with American assessments of electronic signals sent to satellites 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. The other interpretation was that Flight MH370 continued to fly to the northwest and headed over Indian territory.
The source added that it was believed unlikely the plane flew for any length of time over India because that country has strong air defense and radar coverage and that should have allowed authorities there to see the plane and intercept it.
Two sources familiar with the investigation in Malaysia said on Friday that military radar data showed the aircraft following a commonly used commercial, navigational route toward the Middle East and Europe.
That course — headed into the Andaman Sea and toward the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean — could only have been set deliberately, either by flying the jet manually or by programming the autopilot.
Among the U.S. investigators, piracy and pilot suicide were among the scenarios under study.
Some experts theorize that one of the pilots, or someone else with flying experience, hijacked the plane or committed suicide by plunging the jet into the sea.
Adding to the speculation that someone was flying the jet, The New York Times on Friday quoted sources familiar with the investigation as saying that the plane experienced significant changes in altitude after it lost contact with ground control, and altered its course more than once.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press earlier that investigators are examining the possibility of “human intervention” in the plane’s disappearance, adding it may have been “an act of piracy.” The official, who wasn’t authorized to talk to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was possible the plane may have landed somewhere. The official later said there was no solid information on who might have been involved.
The New York Times, quoting American officials and others familiar with the investigation, said radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appear to show the airliner climbing to 45,000 feet (about 13,700 meters), higher than a Boeing 777’s approved limit, soon after it disappeared from civilian radar, and making a sharp turn to the west. The radar track then shows the plane descending unevenly to an altitude of 23,000 feet (7,000 meters), below normal cruising levels, before rising again and flying northwest over the Strait of Malacca toward the Indian Ocean, the paper reported.
Though some investigators are now convinced that “human intervention” caused the disappearance, U.S. officials told the White House at a briefing Friday that they have “run all the traps” and come up with no good information on who might have been involved, according to an official familiar with the meeting. The meeting was attended by State and Defense department officials, the CIA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, among others. “I don’t think there is any consensus on a theory,” the official said. “They’re not hearing anything in their surveillance that would indicate that this is part of a plot.”
At this point, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the two pilots, though Malaysian police have said they are looking at their psychological background, their family life and connections. Ahmad Shah, 53, and Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, have both been described as respectable, community-minded men.
Mike Glynn, a committee member of the Australian and International Pilots Association, said he considers pilot suicide to be the most likely explanation for the disappearance, as was suspected in a SilkAir crash during a flight from Singapore to Jakarta in 1997 and an EgyptAir flight in 1999. “A pilot rather than a hijacker is more likely to be able to switch off the communications equipment,” Glynn said. “The last thing that I, as a pilot, want is suspicion to fall on the crew, but it’s happened twice before.”
The disappearance of the Boeing 777 — one of the safest commercial jets in service — is shaping into one of the most baffling mysteries in aviation history.
It is extremely rare for a modern passenger aircraft to disappear once it has reached cruising altitude, as MH370 had. When that does happen, the debris from a crash is usually found close to its last known position relatively quickly. In this case, there has been no trace of the plane, nor any sign of wreckage, as the navies and military aircraft of more than a dozen countries scour the seas on both sides of peninsular Malaysia.
The maximum range of the Boeing 777-200ER is 14,305 km.
It is not clear how much fuel the aircraft was carrying though it would have been enough to reach its scheduled destination, Beijing, a flight of five hours and 50 minutes, plus some reserve.