17 mar 2014
Pilot spoke to air controllers after shutoff of data system
Sepang, Malaysia: A signaling system was disabled on the missing Malaysia Airlines jet before a pilot spoke to Malaysian air traffic control without hinting at any trouble, a senior Malaysian official said Sunday, shedding new light on a question important to determining why the plane turned far off its planned route and disappeared more than a week ago with 239 people onboard.
Malaysia’s defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, offered the detail a day after the country’s prime minister, Najib Razak, ended days of hesitant, sometimes contradictory government statements about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. Najib acknowledged Saturday that military radar and satellite data showed the plane had probably been deliberately diverted by at least one person onboard and flown far off its intended route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Now Malaysia is coordinating a 25-nation effort to find the plane and to work out why it went so far off course. The sequence of the pilot’s actions and communication has been a focus of intense scrutiny, especially whether the signaling system, ACARS, was disabled before or after the pilot’s last verbal message.
Commercial passenger planes use radio or satellite signals to send data through ACARS – the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System – which can monitor engines and other equipment for problems that may need attention when a plane lands. Although officials have said ACARS was disabled on the missing plane, it had previously been unclear whether the system stopped functioning before or after the captain of the plane radioed his last, brief words to Kuala Lumpur, in which he did not indicate anything wrong with the signals system or the plane as a whole.
During a news conference Sunday, Hishammuddin, who is also acting minister of transportation, gave a brief answer: “Yes, it was disabled before.”
The plane was passing over the Gulf of Thailand between northern Malaysia and southern Vietnam on March 8 when its communications links were severed and the plane reversed direction, flying across the Malaysian peninsula and out over the Strait of Malacca. Given the complexity of that feat, experts and U.S. government officials have said that experienced aviators, possibly one or both of the pilots on the plane, were likely to be involved, willingly or under compulsion.
As the plane was heading out of Malaysian air traffic control space, the captain radioed back a brief verbal signoff without indicating any trouble onboard, or mentioning any malfunction with ACARS. The omission of any mention of trouble appeared likely to raise questions about whether the captain misled air traffic controllers or was perhaps acting under coercion by someone familiar with aviation technology.
The plane’s transponder, which sends tracking signals to air traffic controllers, was also disabled, making it difficult to monitor the plane’s movements through the usual means. The transponder was disabled at 1:21 a.m., about 12 minutes after ACARS was disabled.
Malaysia Airlines has previously said that the last voice communications was around 1:30 a.m. Hishammuddin was not asked and did not say whether the last voice communication was after the disabling of the transponder as well as ACARS.
But Malaysian authorities trying to locate Flight 370 also said Sunday that they would examine the backgrounds of all 239 passengers and crew onboard the Boeing 777 jet, as well as ground crew and engineers who worked on the aircraft. They appealed to countries from Central Asia to Australia for help in the search.
“The Malaysian authorities are refocusing their investigation on all crew and passengers,” Hishammuddin said.
He confirmed that the Malaysian police had searched the Kuala Lumpur homes of the flight’s captain, or chief pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and his junior co-pilot, or first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, on Saturday. The police took a flight simulator the chief pilot kept at his home and had reassembled it to examine its workings, Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police, told reporters. But he stressed that the investigators must now look at everyone who was on the flight, which took off at 12:41 a.m. local time on March 8.
Investigators now confront the formidable twin tasks of diving into the minutiae of each passenger and crew member’s background, while also expanding a search that potentially stretches from the mountains Central Asia to empty oceans west of Australia. Malaysian officials said that they would appeal to countries for help along the two corridors north and south where, satellite data indicate, the plane may have wound up after six hours of flying following its disappearance beyond the range of military radar in western Malaysia. The countries include Australia, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian states.
Even knowing where to restart the search appears to be a problem. Until Najib’s announcement about the likely course of the plane, many planes and ships were devoted to scanning the seas off Malaysia’s east coast – the opposite direction from the new focus of the hunt.