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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Search expanded for missing plane

Published 17/03/2014 | 01:07

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Malaysia officials at a press conference regarding missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner MH370 (AP)

Officials have released a new timeline suggesting the final voice transmission from the cockpit of the missing Malaysian plane may have occurred before any of its communications systems were disabled.

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The latest development adds more uncertainty about who aboard might have been to blame.

The search for Flight 370, which vanished early March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, has now been expanded deep into the northern and southern hemispheres. Australian vessels scoured the southern Indian Ocean and China offered 21 of its satellites to help Malaysia in the unprecedented hunt.

Investigators say the plane was deliberately diverted during its overnight flight and flew off-course for hours. They haven't ruled out hijacking, sabotage, or pilot suicide, and they are checking the backgrounds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members, as well as the ground crew, to see if links to terrorists, personal problems or psychological issues could be factors.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said finding the plane was still the main focus, and he did not rule out that it might be discovered intact.

"The fact that there was no distress signal, no ransom notes, no parties claiming responsibility, there is always hope," he said at a news conference.

Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said an initial investigation indicated that the last words heard from the plane by ground controllers - "All right, good night" - were spoken by the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid. Had it been a voice other than that of Fariq or the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, it would have clearest indication yet of something amiss in the cockpit before the flight went off-course.

Malaysian officials said earlier that those words came after one of the jetliner's data communications systems - the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System - had been switched off, suggesting the voice from the cockpit may have been trying to deceive ground controllers.

However, Mr Amhad said that while the last data transmission from ACARS - which gives plane performance and maintenance information - came before that, it was still unclear at what point the system was switched off, making any implications of the timing murkier.

The new information opened the possibility that both ACARS and the plane's transponders, which make the plane visible to civilian air traffic controllers, were turned off at about the same time. It also suggests that the message delivered from the cockpit could have preceded any of the severed communications.

French investigators arriving in Kuala Lumpur to lend expertise from the two-year search for an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 said they were able to rely on distress signals. But that vital tool is missing in the Malaysia Airlines mystery because the flight's communications were deliberately silenced ahead of its disappearance, investigators say.

"It's very different from the Air France case. The Malaysian situation is much more difficult," said Jean Paul Troadec, a special adviser to France's aviation accident investigation bureau.

Malaysia's government sent diplomatic cables to all countries in the search area, seeking more planes and ships for the search, as well as to ask for any radar data that might help.

The search involves 26 countries and initially focused on seas on either side of Peninsular Malaysia, in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Najib Razak said investigators determined that a satellite picked up a faint signal from the aircraft about 7½ hours after takeoff. The signal indicated the plane would have been somewhere on a vast arc stretching from Kazakhstan in Central Asia to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

Mr Hishammuddin said that searches in both the northern and southern stretches of the arc had begun, and that countries from Australia to China in the north and Kazakhstan in the west had joined the hunt.

Press Association

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