KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s Civil Aviation Department said late Monday the last words spoken by one of the pilots of missing Flight MH370 were “Good night Malaysian three seven zero,” and not the more casual “All right, good night” originally reported.
The admission is likely to add to criticism of the Malaysian authorities’ handling of the search for the Malaysia Airlines flight which vanished on March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Chinese relatives of those on board the missing plane have been particularly scathing, accusing Malaysia of incompetence and even a coverup.
“We would like to confirm that the last conversation in the transcript between the air traffic controller and the cockpit is at 0119 (Malaysian time) and is ‘Good night Malaysian three seven zero,’ ” the department said in a statement Monday night.
“The authorities are still doing forensic investigation to determine whether those last words from the cockpit were spoken by the pilot or the co-pilot.”
Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said on March 17 the last words from the cockpit were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot.
Shortly after the last message from the plane communications were cut and the Boeing 777, carrying mostly Chinese nationals, vanished from civilian radar.
The department said a full transcript will be released during a briefing with relatives of the missing passengers.
The move comes after testy exchanges Monday between foreign journalists and Malaysian Transport and Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, who insisted, “We are not hiding anything, we are just following the procedure that has been set.”
Malaysia insists it is being transparent, but it has yet to release any details of its investigation into what happened, which has included probing the backgrounds of everyone on the flight, including crew members.
In the early days of their daily press briefings after the plane went missing, Malaysian officials made a series of contradictory statements that added to the confusion.
Notably, there have been about-turns regarding the crucial sequence of events in the plane’s cockpit before it veered off course, and Malaysia’s armed forces have been criticized for failing to intercept the diverted plane when it appeared on military radar.
Such missteps have fueled relatives’ anger, with families of Chinese passengers accusing Malaysian officials of incompetence and deceit.
A massive international search for the plane is currently focused on the southern Indian Ocean, where the aircraft is thought to have crashed after mysteriously veering off course.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is heading to Australia to witness the race-against-time bid to locate the crash site.
Ships and planes from seven nations are engaged in the massive search operation in a vast zone far off the state of Western Australia but so far the hunt for debris that will prove the jet crashed in the Indian Ocean has turned up nothing.
Experts warn debris must be found within days to nail down a crash site in order for any use of a U.S.-supplied black box detector — known as a towed pinger locator (TPL) — to be feasible.
The U.S. Navy, which has supplied the detection device, said in a statement Monday: “Without confirmation of debris it will be virtually impossible to effectively employ the TPL since the range on the black-box pinger is only about a mile (1.6 km).”
But Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said no time limit will be imposed on the search for clues as to what happened.
“We owe it to the families, we owe it to everyone that travels by air, we owe it to the anxious governments of the countries who had people on that aircraft. We owe it to the wider world which has been transfixed by this mystery for three weeks now,” Abbott said in Perth.
The Australian vessel Ocean Shield, fitted with the pinger locator and an underwater drone designed to home in on the black box’s signal, was set to head to the search area.
A black box signal usually lasts only about 30 days. Fears are mounting that time will run out — Ocean Shield will not reach the search zone, now the size of Norway, until Thursday, roughly 26 days after the plane went missing.
If floating debris belonging to MH370 is found, authorities plan to analyze recent weather patterns and ocean currents to determine where the plane went down.
Malaysia believes MH370 was deliberately diverted by someone on board and that satellite data indicates it crashed in the remote Indian Ocean.
Malaysia remains officially in charge, but Australia has assumed increasing responsibility, appointing retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston to head a new coordination center in Perth.