Suspicions over pilots on missing jet deepen amid massive search

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the theory that one or both of the pilots on the Malaysian jetliner might have been involved in its disappearance has gained strength as the final recording from the cockpit gave no indication anything was wrong even though one of the plane’s communications systems had already been disabled, it has emerged.

As authorities examined a flight simulator confiscated from the home of one of the pilots and dug through the background of all 239 people on board as well as the ground crew that serviced the aircraft, they also were grappling with the enormity of the search ahead of them, warning they needed more data to narrow down the hunt.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 took off from Kuala Lumpur at around 12:40am on March 8, headed to Beijing. Malaysia’s government has confirmed the aircraft was deliberately diverted and may have flown as far north as Central Asia, or south into the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean.

Authorities have said someone on board the plane first disabled one of its communications systems – the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS – at 1:07am. Around 14 minutes later, the transponder, which identifies the plane to commercial radar systems, was also shut down. The fact that they went dark separately is strong evidence that the plane’s disappearance was deliberate.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference yesterday that the final, reassuring words from the cockpit – “All right, good night” – were spoken to air traffic controllers after the ACARS system was shut down. Whoever spoke did not mention any trouble on board, seemingly misleading ground control.

Air force Major General Affendi Buang said he did not know whether it was the pilot or co-pilot who spoke to air traffic controllers.

Given the expanse of land and water that might need to be searched, the wreckage of the plane might take months – or longer – to find, or might never be located.

The search area now includes 11 countries the plane might have flown over, Mr Hishammuddin said.

“The search was already a highly complex, multinational effort. It has now become even more difficult,” he said.

Investigators are trying to answer these questions: If the two pilots were involved in the disappearance, were they working together or alone, or with one or more of the passengers or crew? Did they fly the plane under duress or of their own volition? Did one or more of the passengers manage to break into the cockpit, or use the threat of violence to gain entry and then pilot the plane? And what motive could there be for flying off with the plane?

Malaysia’s police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, said he requested countries with citizens on board the plane to investigate their background.

The government said police searched the homes of both pilots on Saturday, the first time they had done so since the plane went missing.

Asked why it took them so long, Mr Khalid said authorities “didn’t see the necessity in the early stages”.

He said police confiscated the elaborate flight simulator that one of the pilots, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had built in his home and reassembled it in their offices to study it for clues.