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Thursday 2 October 2014

'Low-flying' jumbo spotted over Maldives after MH370 vanished

Jonathan Pearlman Kuala Lumpur Joanna Walters in New York

Published 19/03/2014 | 02:30

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A boy comforts a crying girl during a special prayer in central Kuala Lumpur for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
A boy comforts a crying girl during a special prayer in central Kuala Lumpur for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370

THE global hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight shifted to a tiny island in the Maldives, where residents spotted a "low-flying jumbo jet" hours after the aircraft disappeared.

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Several witnesses in Dhaalu Atoll saw a plane heading south that bore the red stripe and white background of Malaysia Airlines planes.

The sightings, reported by a local news outlet, would have occurred more than seven hours after the plane, carrying 12 crew and 227 mainly Chinese passengers, lost contact with air traffic control and took its sudden westward turn during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in the early hours of Saturday, March 8.

"I've never seen a jet flying so low over our island before. We've seen seaplanes, but I'm sure that this was not one of those. I could even make out the doors on the plane clearly," said a witness.

The chances of another aircraft of that size flying over the island at the time were, according to Maldives sources, very low. Though authorities are yet to confirm the sighting, the plane's pilot, Captain Zaharie Shah, is believed to have practised landing at Male International Airport in the Maldives on a three-screen flight simulator at his home. The machine has been seized by police.

A report in a Malay language newspaper claimed Captain Zaharie also practised at three airports in India and Sri Lanka and a runway at the US military base on Diego Garcia.

Police would not confirm the details about the flight simulator yesterday.

However, Peter Chong, a friend of the pilot, insisted that there was nothing suspicious about the simulator and that Captain Zaharie invited many of his friends to use it.

HIDING

"He was not hiding it, he was open about it," Mr Chong said. "He loves flying. He wanted to share the joy of flying with his friends."

Captain Zaharie, a 53-year-old father of three, and his co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, a 27-year-old who was planning to marry his 26-year-old pilot girlfriend, Nadira Ramli, have been described by friends and family as flying enthusiasts who had no known links to extremism or any psychological problems.

Authorities in Malaysia have confirmed that they believe the flight was deliberately interfered with and that its communications system was intentionally disabled before the plane flew "invisible" for a further seven to eight hours, suggesting an experienced pilot was in control.

But the lack of any motive – and the disappearance of the plane – has left authorities increasingly mystified during a search that has lasted more than 11 days. As Malaysia appealed to countries in the two major search areas to share surveillance data, vital information emerged from Thai air force radars yesterday that revealed clues about the aircraft's wayward path.

In what was a further example of the secrecy surrounding the investigation, Thailand's air force said it detected a plane believed to be the missing MH370 flight, seven minutes after the plane's transponder was turned off at 1.21am. In a series of inexplicable movements, the flight reportedly headed back towards Kuala Lumpur, then turned right towards the Strait of Malacca – a sequence that corresponds with data captured by the Malaysian military.

Thailand's Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn said the plane did not enter Thai airspace, and that the data was not released until now because "we did not pay any attention to it".

China revealed yesterday that the 154 Chinese passengers aboard the flight had been cleared of "destructive behaviour".

But as the search continued, aviation experts were offering several different theories. Steven Frischling, a US aviation security expert, said last night he thought the plane had been taken by force.

"Four hours after the aircraft went missing my primary source (at the Department of Homeland Security) told me unequivocally that this was a pilot-involved incident," he said. He said everything pointed to the idea that the Boeing 777 had not crashed, as there was "no evidence" to support it.

"One of the positions on the plane that would be filled with a large metal cargo container is unaccounted for on the manifest," he said. "So there is unexplained cargo. I don't know who or what was on that plane that they wanted, but they wanted the aircraft, I think it's on the ground, being hidden or dismantled."

JUNGLE

John Cane of Cane Associates Aviation Consultants and former Lieutenant Colonel squadron commander in the US Marine Corps, said he thought the plane was either at the bottom of the Indian Ocean or in thick canopy jungle in Malaysia or Thailand.

"If it flew on for six hours or more after the last communication it's not a malfunction because they would be looking for the first opportunity to land. That drives you back to the logic that it was a criminal act, especially with the change of direction and changes in altitude," he said. Jim Brauchle, a former US air force pilot who is now an aviation lawyer, believes the plane has most likely crashed into the Indian Ocean.

"If it had crossed any coastline, even without its communications, it would have been picked up on radar. The theories of it potentially landing somewhere – is it possible? Sure. Is it probable? I don't think so. It would need a 5,000ft to 6,000ft-long decent runway. If it tried to land on some distant aerodrome, or literally a field, it would crash and we would most likely know about it."

Robert Mark, a commercial pilot and editor of 'Aviation International News Safety' magazine, said: "The latest is the theory that MH370 shadowed a Singapore Airlines flight. The Israelis have done this before, shadowing a 747 with a fighter jet so that from the ground radar it looks like one aircraft. We are going to find out ultimately that the people who took this aircraft were as good at planning as the people behind 9/11." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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