WASHINGTON, D.C.: The turn that diverted the missing Malaysian Airlines plane off its flight path was programmed into the aircraft’s computer navigation system, probably by someone in the cockpit, The New York Times reported on Monday (Tuesday in Manila).
From Beijing, China’s envoy to Kuala Lumpur said no evidence has been found linking the 153 Chinese passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight to terror or hijacking, Chinese state media said on Tuesday.
The report of The New York Times reinforces the increasing belief among investigators that the aircraft was deliberately diverted, the newspaper said, quoting US officials.
Rather than manually operating the plane’s controls, whoever altered Flight 370’s path typed seven or eight keystrokes into a computer situated between the captain and the co-pilot, according to officials.
The computer is called the Flight Management System. It directs the plane from point to point specified in the flight plan submitted before a flight.
It is not clear whether the plane’s path was reprogrammed before or after it took off, The New York Times said.
Flight 370 vanished on March 8 with 239 people aboard a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Malaysia said on Saturday it believed the plane had been diverted because its transponder and other communications devices had been manually turned off several minutes apart.
But confusion has taken hold over the timeline of events before ground controllers lost contact with the aircraft.
Malaysia on Monday said it was the co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid who was the last person in the cockpit to speak to ground control.
Identifying the voice had been deemed crucial because officials initially said the words were spoken after one of the Boeing’s two automated signalling systems—Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS)—had been manually disabled.
But Malaysia Airlines director Ahmad Jauhari Yahya contradicted that chronology, saying that the ACARS could have been switched off before or after Fariq spoke.
The New York Times said the changes made to the plane’s direction through the Flight Management System were reported back to a maintenance base by ACARS, according to an American official.
This showed the reprogramming happened before the ACARS stopped working, at about the same time that oral radio contact was lost and the airplane’s transponder also stopped. This fuels suspicions that foul play was involved in the plane’s disappearance.
Investigators are scrutinizing radar tapes from when the plane first departed Kuala Lumpur, because they believe the tapes will show that after the plane first changed its course, it passed through several pre-established “waypoints,” which are like virtual mile markers in the sky, the Times said.
That would suggest the plane was under control of a knowledgeable pilot because passing through those points without using the computer would have been unlikely, it added.
China search initiative
In Beijing, China’s ambassador to Malaysia, Huang Huikang, said China had begun searching for the aircraft on its own territory amid a huge international search operation covering vast areas north and south of the plane’s last-known position.
A criminal investigation had been launched, Huang said, but added that some information could not yet be revealed.
“The probe into the incident’s cause is not suitable to be conducted in a high-profile way,” he said, according to Xinhua.
Huang said background checks on all passengers from the Chinese mainland on board missing flight MH370 did not find any evidence that they were linked to a hijacking or terrorist attack on the jet, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Twenty-six countries are now helping to hunt for the plane after satellite and military radar data projected two huge corridors through which the plane might have flown.
“The Malaysian government has been doing its best in search and investigation, but it lacks experience and capability to handle this kind of incident,” Huang said, according to Xinhua.
But a US naval ship that has been aiding the international search will be withdrawn from the effort, the Pentagon officials said on Tuesday.
The decision to take the USS Kidd off the search was taken because the search area was now so extensive that it was more efficient to look for the jet using surveillance aircraft, officials said.
The guided missile destroyer had joined the massive hunt last week and had shifted its focus west to the Andaman Sea on the request of the Malaysian government.
The Kidd, with a MH-60 helicopter on board, had completed a search of 15,000 square miles but “no debris or wreckage associated with an aircraft was found,” it said.
“With the search area expanding into the southern Indian Ocean, long-range patrol aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon and P-3C Orion are more suited to the current SAR [search and rescue]mission,” the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement.