A police car comes out of the house of the MH370 pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, outside Kuala Lumpur on Saturday; (below) a man walks past co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamidís house. (AP)
New Delhi, March 15: Malaysia today asked India and eight other countries for sensitive radar data, armed with the strongest evidence yet that the missing Flight 370 was deliberately commandeered into either of two air corridors stretching up to central Asia or the southern Indian Ocean.
The Malaysian government also asked 13 countries, including India, to initiate background checks on their nationals among the 227 passengers on board as the search for the Beijing-bound Boeing 777-200ER, which disappeared off radars about an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur early on March 8, turned into a criminal investigation.
The requests followed new information based on satellite data that has transformed the hunt from a blind search of the seas close to Malaysia to cover two long but well-defined arcs that end in Kazakhstan and the remote southern Indian Ocean.
“It is an almost unprecedented request — they want us to share data from both civilian and military radars to help search for the plane,” a senior Indian official involved in processing requests from the Malaysian government told The Telegraph.
In two separate meetings today, Malaysian authorities requested India to scrutinise records from its military radars in the Northeast for any signatures that the plane might have been spotted within their ranges. The northern arc stretches from northern Laos across southwest China, kissing the Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh before heading into Kazakhstan.
Aviation authorities from Malaysia, the UK and the US, using the satellite data, have confirmed that an instrument called the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) was disabled just before the plane reached the east coast of Malaysia. A few minutes later, near the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control, the aircraft’s transponder was switched off.
Both instruments allow ground controllers to identify and track the plane’s movements through radars.
Mikael Robertsson, a founder of Flightradar24, a global aviation tracking service, said the way the communications were shut down pointed to the involvement of someone with considerable aviation expertise and knowledge of the air route.
The Boeing’s transponder was switched off just as the plane passed from Malaysian to Vietnamese air traffic control space, thus making it more likely that its absence from communications would not arouse attention, Robertsson said from Sweden.
The investigators who combined data from a Malaysian military radar and a satellite that continued to receive signals from MH370 have confirmed that the plane then moved west over peninsular Malaysia before turning northwest.
“These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a statement today.
The satellite data analysis has revealed that the last confirmed communication between the plane and the satellite occurred at 8.11am Malaysian time on March 8, about seven hours after radar contact was lost.
The investigators have determined that the aircraft was at that point somewhere in one of the two possible air corridors.“If the plane was under someone’s control and flew for seven hours after loss of radar contact, it must have followed the northern corridor,” Keith Mackey, a pilot and an aviation safety specialist in Florida, with more than 17,000 hours of flying experience, who is not associated with this investigation, told The Telegraph. “There is nowhere to land along the southern corridor — if the intention was to crash the plane, then why fly it for seven hours?”
However, according to a person who has been briefed on the progress of the probe, investigators are strongly favouring the southern corridor as the likely flight path. “The US Navy would not be heading toward Kazakhstan,” the person, who requested anonymity, said.
The northern arc runs through or is close to some of the world’s most volatile and highly militarised areas with robust air-defence networks, some run by the American military. The arc passes close to northern Iran, through Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, and through northern India and the Himalayan mountains and Myanmar.
An aircraft flying on that arc would have to pass through air-defence networks in India and Pakistan, whose mutual border is heavily militarised, as well as through Afghanistan, where the US and other Nato countries operate air bases. Air bases near that arc include the big Indian air base, Hindon Air Force Station, and the Bagram airfield in Afghanistan, where the US Air Force’s 455th Air Expeditionary Wing is based.
Amid mounting speculation that the plane had been hijacked, the Malaysian Prime Minister said: “We are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate from its original flight path.”
The new satellite information has prompted Malaysian authorities to shut down the search operations in the South China Sea and the South Andaman Sea.
“A search for the plane in the southern Indian Ocean will be hugely challenging, and will require a much bigger effort than what’s been going on,” said S. Prasanna Kumar, head of physical oceanography at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa.
About 40 ships and 58 aircraft from 14 countries were today involved in the search.
In the absence of any floating debris on the ocean, Kumar said, ships equipped with acoustic scanners will need to probe the ocean to look for wreckage, if any.
Aviation experts say the amount and type of debris left on the ocean surface would depend on the angle, the speed, and the integrity of the aircraft when it hits the water. An aircraft whose fuselage breaks up on contact is likely to dislodge buoyant materials from inside.
Aviation experts say the new satellite-based data does not resolve the mystery whether the aircraft landed or crashed — whether on land or in the ocean — after its last ping to the satellite about seven hours after going off radars.
And how far MH370 might have flown would depend on how much fuel it had carried. A Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight could be expected to be loaded with about eight hours to 10 hours of jet fuel to cover the distance, with additional reserves to cover delays in air traffic and a possible diversion to a nearby airport, said a senior air traffic controller in India.
Search and rescue teams looking for a Paris-bound Air France plane from Rio de Janeiro that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on May 31 2009 had found floating debris from the plane within a week. But it took two years and aircraft, ships, and deep-sea submersibles to find the major part of the wreckage on the ocean floor in June 2011 at a depth of nearly 4,000 metres.