Vanished plane flew for more than six hours after severing contact; focus turns to pilots
Wong Maye-E, Associated Press
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Attention focused Sunday on the pilots of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight after the country's leader announced findings so far that suggest someone with intimate knowledge of the Boeing 777's cockpit seized control of the plane and sent it off-course.
Prime Minister Najib Razak gave the first detailed findings Saturday in the more than weeklong investigation into the missing plane, showing that someone severed communications with the ground and deliberately diverted Flight 307 after it departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8 on an overnight flight with a 12-person crew and 227 passengers.
Satellite data suggest it flew for at least 7 ½ hours and that it could have reached as northwest as Kazakhstan or deep into the southern Indian Ocean, Najib said. "Clearly the search for MH370 has entered a new phase," Najib said at a televised news conference. "It is widely understood that this has been a situation without precedent."
Experts say that whoever disabled the plane's communication systems and then flew the jet must have had a high degree of technical knowledge and flying experience. One possibility they have raised was that one of the pilots wanted to divert the plane for some reason — possibly even to commit suicide. Piracy and hijacking also have been cited as possible explanations.
Najib stressed that investigators were looking into all possibilities.
"In view of this latest development, the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board," Najib told reporters, reading from a written statement but not taking any questions.
Police on Saturday went to the Kuala Lumpur homes of both the pilot and co-pilot of the missing plane, according to a guard and several local reporters. Malaysian police have said they are looking at the psychological state, family life and connections of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27. They released no details on their investigation so far.
Zaharie, who joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981 and had more than 18,000 hours of flying experience, was known as an avid aviation enthusiast who had set up an elaborate flight simulator at home.
Fariq was contemplating marriage after having just graduated to the cockpit of a Boeing 777. He has drawn scrutiny after the revelation that he and another pilot invited two female passengers to sit in the cockpit during a flight in 2011.
Two-thirds of the plane's passengers were Chinese, and China's government has been under pressure to give anxious relatives firm news of the aircraft's fate. Beijing's state media expressed irritation Saturday at what it described as Malaysia's foot-dragging in releasing information about the investigation and the search.
At a hotel near Beijing's airport, some relatives said they felt deceived at not being told earlier about the plane emitting signals for 7 ½ hours. "We are going through a roller coaster, and we feel helpless and powerless," said a woman, who declined to give her name.
Najib, at his news conference, said he understood the need for families to receive information, but that his government wanted to release only fully corroborated details.
The missing Malaysia Airlines flight departed Kuala Lumpur at 12:40 a.m. heading toward Beijing. Investigators now have a high degree of certainty that one of the plane's communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) — 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.
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