Pilot Spoke to Air Controllers After Shutoff of Data System
By CHRIS BUCKLEY and KEITH BRADSHERMARCH 16, 2014
A Malaysian soldier patrolled an area of the airport in Kuala Lumpur where passengers have written messages for the people aboard the missing plane and their loved ones. Credit Wong Maye-E/Associated Press
SEPANG, Malaysia — A signaling system was disabled on the missing Malaysia Airlines jet before a pilot spoke to Malaysian air traffic control without hinting at any trouble, a senior Malaysian official said Sunday, shedding new light on a question important to determining why the plane turned far off its planned route and disappeared over a week ago with 239 people onboard.
Malaysia’s defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, offered the detail a day after the country’s prime minister, Najib Razak, ended days of hesitant, sometimes contradictory government statements about the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared over a week ago. Mr. Najib acknowledged on Saturday that military radar and satellite data showed the plane had probably been deliberately diverted by at least one person onboard and flown far off its intended route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
In Sepang, Malaysia, on Saturday, well-wishers wrote messages on a board for families of the passengers on the missing plane.
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The home of Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, the first officer on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, about 15 miles west of Kuala Lumpur.
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Now Malaysia is coordinating a 25-nation effort to find the plane, and to work out why it went so far off course. The sequence of the pilot’s actions and communication has been a focus of intense scrutiny, especially whether the signaling system, ACARS, was disabled before or after his last verbal message.
Estimated range of plane
Estimated range of plane with its remaining fuel if it was flying at the plane’s maximum speed:
60 min. of fuel
Approx. area within the top and bottom 20-min. ranges:
2 million square miles
+40 min. Last contact with civilian radar.
Kuala Lumpur airport
+1 hour 34 min. Last contact with military radar.
Position of satellite that received last known signal
+7.5 hours Red arcs represent possible positions of plane when it transmitted last signal to satellite.
Plane may have flown up to another hour after its last satellite transmission.
By SERGIO PEÇANHA, ARCHIE TSE and TIM WALLACE
Source: Malaysian government
Commercial passenger planes use radio or satellite signals to send data through ACARS — the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System — which can monitor engines and other equipment for problems that may need attention when a plane lands. Although officials have said ACARS was disabled on the missing plane, it had previously been unclear whether the system stopped functioning before or after the captain of the plane radioed his last, brief words to Kuala Lumpur, in which he did not indicate anything wrong with the signals system or the plane as a whole.
During a press conference on Sunday Mr. Hishammuddin, who is also acting minister of transportation, gave his brief answer: “Yes, it was disabled before,” he said.
The plane was passing over the Gulf of Thailand between northern Malaysia and southern Vietnam on March 8 when its communications links were severed and the plane reversed direction, flying across the Malaysian peninsula and out over the Strait of Malacca. Given the complexity of that feat, experts and American government officials have said that experienced aviators, possibly one or both of the pilots on the plane, were likely to be involved, willingly or under compulsion.
As the plane was heading out of Malaysian air traffic control space, the captain radioed back a brief verbal signoff without indicating any trouble onboard, or mentioning any malfunction with ACARS. The omission of any mention of trouble appeared likely to raise questions about whether the captain misled air traffic controllers or was perhaps acting under coercion by someone familiar with aviation technology.
The plane’s transponder, which sends tracking signals to air traffic controllers was also disabled, making it difficult to monitor the plane’s movements through the usual means. The transponder was disabled at 1:21 a.m., about a dozen minutes after ACARS was disabled.
Malaysia Airlines has previously said that the last voice communications was around 1:30 a.m. Mr. Hishammuddin was not asked and did not say whether the last voice communication was after the disabling of the transponder as well as ACARS.
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But Malaysian authorities trying to locate Flight 370 also said Sunday that they would examine the backgrounds of all 239 passengers and crew onboard the Boeing 777 jet, as well as ground crew and engineers who worked on the aircraft. They appealed to countries from Central Asia to Australia for help in the search.
“The Malaysian authorities are refocusing their investigation on all crew and passengers,” Mr. Hishammuddin said.
He confirmed that the Malaysian police had searched the Kuala Lumpur homes of the flight’s captain, or chief pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and his junior co-pilot, or first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, on Saturday. The police took a flight simulator the chief pilot kept at his home, and had reassembled it to examine its workings, Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police, told reporters. But he stressed that the investigators must now look at everyone who was on the flight, which took off at 12:41 a.m. local time on March 8.
Investigators now confront the formidable twin tasks of diving into the minutiae of each passenger and crew member’s background, while also expanding a search that potentially stretches from the mountains Central Asia to empty oceans west of Australia. Malaysian officials said that they would appeal to countries for help along the two corridors north and south where, satellite data indicate, the plane may have wound up after six hours of flying following its disappearance beyond the range of military radar in western Malaysia. The countries include Australia, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian states.
Even knowing where to restart the search appears to be a problem. Until Mr. Najib’s dramatic announcement about the likely course of the plane, many planes and ships were devoted to scanning the seas off Malaysia’s east coast – precisely the opposite direction from the new focus of the hunt.
“Malaysian officials are currently discussing with all partners how best to deploy assets along the two corridors,” the Malaysian ministry said in a written statement. “Both the northern and southern corridors are being treated with equal importance.”
Although the weight of suspicion would inevitably fall on the pilots and other crew members, investigators were following established procedure by examining everyone on the missing plane, said Rohan Gunaratna, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who studies security and terrorism in Asia.
“You can’t rule anything out, so everyone on the plane must be treated as a potential suspect,” Professor Gunaratna said in a telephone interview. He said he had heard no credible information of any militant group claiming responsibility for seizing the plane. “That does not mean the possibility does not exist, but at this stage of the investigation it’s important to be open to all the possibilities,” he said.
A satellite orbiting 22,250 miles over the middle of the Indian Ocean received the final transmission that, based on the angle from which the plane sent it, came from somewhere along one of the two corridors that investigators are exploring.
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Reconstructing the Plane’s Path
The main communications systems of the Malaysia Airlines plane were turned off about 40 minutes into the flight, forcing investigators to try to piece together the plane’s location from other systems.
Secondary Radar and Text Updates
Air traffic controllers typically know a plane’s location based on what is called secondary radar, which requests information from the plane’s transponder. A plane also uses radio or satellite signals to send regular updates through ACARS, the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. Both of those systems were turned off.
Two Malaysian military radar stations tracked a plane using primary radar, which sends out radio signals and listens for echoes that bounce off objects in the sky. Primary radar does not require a plane to have a working transponder.
If ACARS updates are turned off, the plane still sends a “keep-alive” signal, that can be received by satellites. The signal does not indicate location, but it can help to narrow down the plane’s position. A satellite picked up four or five signals from the airliner, about one per hour, after it left the range of military radar.
By JOSH KELLER, SERGIO PEÇANHA, MATTHEW L. WALD
Sources: R. John Hansman Jr., Massachusetts Institute of Technology; American officials
The northern corridor runs along an arc that touches southern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan in central Asia before running across a huge swath of western and southwestern China, and ending in northernmost Laos. To reach those areas, the aircraft would have had to traverse heavily militarized areas in China, India or Pakistan.
The southern corridor, from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean, travels over open water with few islands. If the aircraft took that path, it might have passed near the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. These remote Australian islands, with a population of fewer than 1,000 people, have a small airport.
In Washington, the Malaysian announcement Saturday did little to change American investigators’ perspectives on what happened to the plane.
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“It doesn’t mean anything; all it is is a theory,” one senior American official said. “Find the plane, find the black boxes and then we can figure out what happened. It has to be based on something, and until they have something more to go on it’s all just theories.” The investigator spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the inquiry.
American investigators have been provided with much of the flight data obtained from radar and satellites, but they say they have far less information about what the Malaysian government has uncovered about the pilots and passengers or the Malaysian inquiry. Soon after the plane disappeared, F.B.I. agents and other American investigators “scrubbed” the names of the pilots and passengers — including two Iranian men who traveled on stolen passports — to determine whether they had any connection to terrorists and found none, according to the officials.
Officials in Washington say they are frustrated because they believe that the F.B.I. could be of substantial assistance.
The Malaysian government has said that analyzing this data is a slow and painstaking process.
Xu Ke, a former commercial pilot who has advised the Chinese government on aviation security, said the details suggested that at least one crew member, most likely one of the pilots, was involved in seizing control of the aircraft, either willingly or under coercion.
“The timing of turning off the transponder suggests that this involved someone with knowledge of how to avoid air traffic control without attracting attention,” Mr. Xu said in a telephone interview. “You needed to know this plane, and you also needed to know this route.”
Especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Xu said, security on cockpit doors has been reinforced so that forced entry would be difficult without the pilots’ having ample time to send a warning signal.
“We have to be careful about our words and conclusions, and examine all the possibilities, but the likelihood that a pilot was involved appears very likely,” Mr. Xu said. “The Boeing 777 is a relatively new and big plane, so it wouldn’t be anyone who could do this, not even someone who has flown smaller passenger planes, even smaller Boeings.”
The northern corridor Mr. Najib described bristles with military radar, making it more likely that the plane either went south or, if it did fly north, did not make it far, Mr. Robertsson said.
“I don’t really think that the aircraft could have flown so far over the land, because it would need to pass over so many countries that someone should have picked it up,” he said. “If they had taken the northern corridor, they could have gone down before they reached land, so it’s also possible.”
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According to a person who has been briefed on the progress of the investigation, the two corridors were derived from calculations by engineers from the satellite communications company Inmarsat, which were provided to investigators. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because details of the search remain confidential.
The older satellite communications box fitted on the plane has no global positioning system, the person said. But investigators have managed to calculate the distance between the “ping” from the plane and a stationary Inmarsat-3 satellite. The satellite can “see” in an arc that stretches to the north and south of its fixed position, but without GPS it can say only how far away the ping is, not where it is coming from, the person said.
But based on what is known about the flight’s trajectory, investigators are strongly favoring the southern corridor as the likely flight path, the person said.
Additional reporting was contributed by Michael Forsythe in Sepang, Malaysia and by Kirk Semple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.