Search for Malaysia plane expanded significantly as mystery deepens

Focus of investigation switches to passengers and crew

Malaysia’s acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein speaks during a news conference about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Photograph: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Malaysia’s acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein speaks during a news conference about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Photograph: REUTERS/Edgar Su


More than one week after Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared, the fate of the jetliner remained as puzzling as ever yesterday, with the investigation now focused on the crew after the search was expanded to include land as well as sea.

The plane was carrying 239 people when it departed for an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing at 12.40am on March 8th. The plane’s communications with civilian air controllers went down at about 1.20am.

“Clearly the search for [Flight] MH370 has entered a new phase,” Malaysia prime minister Najib Razak told a televised news conference. Mr Najib said the focus of the investigation had switched to the passengers and crew, and that the current belief was that as the plane was deliberately diverted, Flight 370 to Beijing could have flown for at least 7½ hours after contact was lost.

This means it could strayed anywhere in an area that is basically a map of Asia, stretching as far south as the southern Indian Ocean, or northwest to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan, and including Vietnam and Thailand, Bangladesh and India, China, Burma and Laos.

Theories are now based on the understanding that whoever disabled the aircraft’s communication systems must have had technical training, and one possibility being examined is that one of the pilots wanted to commit suicide.

The Malaysian police said the four areas of focus were hijacking, sabotage, the possibility that a crew member had personal problems, or that actions were spurred by psychological issues, and that ground staff were also being investigated.

Websites ran a photographs of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah (53) wearing a T-shirt saying “Democracy is Dead”. He was a supporter of Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian democracy activist and political leader who was jailed on sodomy charges hours before the plane took off.

The investigators now believe that the aircraft and communications addressing and reporting system (acars) in the aircraft had been disabled even before it reached the east coast of Malaysia, and that shortly afterwards, someone on board switched off the aircraft’s transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic controllers.

Growing complexity
Malaysian transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the number of countries involved in the search and rescue operation had been increased to 25 from 14, a “significant recalibration”. Mr Hussein’s comments highlighted the growing complexity of the problem, but also how little real information there is to deal with.

There are major questions being asked, such as did the plane fly to 45,000 feet in a bid to deprive those on board of oxygen as part of a hijacking attempt or was the last radar signal actually sent from somewhere on the ground.

There have also been questions about why the Malaysian air force did not spot the plane flying over the country.

One issue with the hijacking theory is that no one has yet stepped forward to claim responsibility or make ransom demands.

“Every day brings new angles, especially as we are focusing and expanding the search area,” said Mr Hussein. “The search was already a highly complex, multinational effort. It has now become more difficult. The search area has been significantly expanded, and the search area has changed. We are now looking at large tracts of land, crossing 11 countries as well as deep and remote oceans.” Police had searched the homes of the pilot and co-pilot – authorities said the two had not asked to fly together.