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Malaysia backtracks on last words’ timing

Malaysian Airlines MH318, which replaced the flight number 370 that was retired as a mark of respect to the missing passengers and crew, sits on the tarmac at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Monday. The flight route to Beijing remains unchanged. (Reuters)

March 17: Malaysian officials today identified the co-pilot as the last person in the cockpit of the missing Flight MH370 to speak to ground control.

But the government added to the confusion about what happened during those key minutes by withdrawing its assertion that the radio signoff had come after a crucial communications system was disabled.

Defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein appeared to give a crucial clue pointing to the possible complicity of the pilots when he said on Sunday that the communications system had been “disabled” at 1.07am on March 8, before someone in the cockpit gave a verbal signoff to air traffic controllers on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

But Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, clarified at a news conference today evening that the communications system, known as an Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars), had worked normally at 1.07am but then failed to send its next regularly scheduled update at 1.37am.

“We don’t know when the Acars system was switched off,” he said.

It was between the two scheduled transmission times for the Acars system, he said, that the verbal signoff was given by radio at 1.19am. A second communications system, a transponder that communicates with ground-based radar, then ceased working at 1.21am.

The latest description of what happened to the Acars system appeared to reopen the possibility that the aircraft was operating normally until the transponder ceased sending signals two minutes after the last radio message.

The new uncertainty could raise additional questions about whether the plane was deliberately diverted or whether it suffered mechanical or electrical difficulties that crippled its communications and resulted in its flying an aberrant course that involved turning around.

Standing next to Jauhari, Hishammuddin waved off numerous questions about why he had said a day earlier that Acars had been disabled at 1.07am. “What I said yesterday was based on fact, corroborated and verified,” he said.

“Initial investigations indicate it was the co-pilot who basically spoke the last time it was recorded on tape,” Jauhari said on Monday.

Malaysian police are also investigating a 29-year-old flight engineer.

A police officer said the flight simulator found at the captain’s home was closely examined, adding that they appeared to be normal ones that allow users to practise flying and landing in different conditions.

Officials and analysts said that judging from the information disclosed so far, there was no evidence to suggest involvement by a terrorist organisation, although there was the possibility of a “lone wolf” acting in the name of extremist beliefs.

Malaysia said three civil aviation security officials had arrived from France to share expertise gained from the search for Air France Flight 447, which disappeared nearly five years ago off the coast of Brazil. Searchers there needed almost two years to find the Air France jet on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

Investigators had an advantage then because they had found more than 3,000 pieces of floating debris and 50 bodies in the ocean in the days and weeks after the crash, giving them a rough sense of where the plane had entered the water.

By contrast, there are still few clues regarding where the Malaysia Airlines’ Boeing finally came down.

Australia, a world leader in over-the-horizon radar technology, said it would search the southern Indian Ocean for Flight MH 370.

Unprecedented in its scale, the search now involves 26 nations and covers an area stretching from the shores of the Caspian Sea in the north to deep in the southern Indian Ocean.