MH370: Tracking disabled before last contact; search grows to 26 countries

System was manually shut off before last message to air control; Malaysia says broad search brings diplomatic challenges

Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows two maps with corridors of the last known possible locations of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, March 17, 2014.
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Those at the controls of Malaysia Air Flight MH370 had their final exchange with air traffic controllers after at least some of the Boeing 777's communications systems were disabled, Malaysian authorities report.

When the cockpit signed off with Kuala Lumpur traffic controllers, before it disappeared from their radar at 1:22 a.m. Malaysian time, the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) had already been manually turned off, said authorities. Experts familiar with the system say that shutting down ACARS can be done only manually and requires a series of keyboard commands.

Authorities have not disclosed whether the person who made final contact with air traffic control, saying "All right, good night," was the flight's captain or co-pilot or someone else.

Malaysian authorities said Monday the number of countries involved in the search for the missing jetliner has increased to 26 — including France and Australia — as diplomatic tensions began to enter the steadily widening international effort to find the plane a week after it vanished.

Three French aviation officials arrived in Kuala Lumpur to help with the search and rescue operation, Malaysia's Ministry of Transport said in a press release. The officials will share their expertise based on their experience from the search for Air France Flight 447, which vanished over the Atlantic in 2009. Wreckage from the French jet took two years to locate on the seabed even though debris was found floating five days after the plane went missing.

Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Sunday that 11 more countries have joined the search after it was determined that Flight MH370 — which was off the east coast of the Malay Peninsula when it slipped from contact — may have gone as far north as Kazakhstan in Central Asia or over the vast reaches of the southern Indian Ocean.

On Monday officials announced the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Royal Malaysian Air Force "will deploy their assets to the southern corridor."

This prospect poses massive challenges for efforts to recover the aircraft and flight data recorders vital to solving the mystery of what happened on board. Authorities are desperate to narrow down a search area now stretching across 11 nations and one of the most remote stretches of ocean in the world.

Hishammuddin said at a news conference that finding the plane would be difficult without cooperation from an international network. Still, increasing the number of countries "brings new challenges of coordination and diplomacy to the search effort," he said.  

China on Saturday demanded that Malaysia provide better information about its search for the aircraft, amid Beijing’s continuing tensions with Southeast Asian governments over long-disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Malaysian officials are contacting countries as far away as France, Uzbekistan and Australia to collaborate on efforts to find the jetliner, according to a statement from the Transportation Ministry.

Countries such as France — as well as China and the United States — have the satellite capability to aid in Malaysia's search, Hishammuddin said.

He also said authorities were hoping for more satellite data that would narrow the search area.

Australia said it was sending one of its two AP-3C Orion aircraft involved in the search to remote islands in the Indian Ocean at Malaysia's request. The plane will search the north and west of the Cocos Islands, a distant Australian territory with an airstrip about 745 miles southwest of Indonesia, military chief Gen. David Hurley said.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Police Chief Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar said he had requested that countries with citizens on board the plane investigate their backgrounds. He said that some had already done so and found nothing suspicious but that he was waiting for others to respond.

The government said police searched the homes of both of the plane's pilots on Saturday — the first time they have done so since the plane went missing. Asked why it took them so long, Khalid said authorities "didn't see the necessity in the early stages."

The government gave few details on the police investigation into the pilots. Khalid said police had confiscated a flight simulator belonging to Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the 59-year-old pilot, and reassembled it in their offices to examine it. He said police also were investigating engineers and ground staffers who may have had contact with the plane before it took off.

Zaharie, who has three grown children and one grandchild, had posted photos online of the flight simulator he built for his home using three large computer monitors and other accessories. Earlier this week, the head of Malaysia Airlines said this was not in itself cause for suspicion.

Malaysian officials and aviation experts said 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, putting one or both of the pilots on a list of possible suspects.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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