An investigation into the pilots of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has intensified as officials confirmed that the last words spoken from the cockpit came after a key signalling system was disabled manually.
Malaysia’s Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein confirmed that an apparently relaxed final voice communication from the cockpit – “All right, good night” – came after the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) had been deliberately shut down.
ACARS transmits key information on a plane’s condition.
It has not been confirmed who gave that final voice message. But the assumption is the person would have known the ACARS system had been disabled.
US intelligence efforts were focusing on Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and his first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, according to a senior US lawmaker.
“I think from all the information I’ve been briefed on from, you know, high levels within homeland security, national counterterrorism centre, intelligence community, that something was going on with the pilot,” said Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
“I think this all leads towards the cockpit, with the pilot himself, and co-pilot,” McCaul told Fox News.
The plane’s transponder – which relays radar information on the plane’s location – was switched off 14 minutes after ACARS went down.
Shortly afterwards the plane disappeared from civilian radar.
The plane went missing early on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew, including six Australians and two New Zealanders, spawning a massive international search across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
For relatives of those on board, a hijacking scenario provides a slim hope that the plane might have landed undetected somewhere.
“If they found the wreckage of the plane then that would be finalised because there’s no hope,” said Australian David Lawton, whose brother was aboard.
“But while you’ve got hope, you’ve got worries, too,” he told Fairfax media.
“Because if they’re alive, are they being treated well, or what’s happening?”
Malaysian police have searched both pilots’ residences.
Associates say Captain Zaharie was an active supporter of Malaysia’s political opposition headed by veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim.
In a highly controversial case, Anwar was convicted of sodomy – illegal in Muslim Malaysia – just hours before MH370 took off.
The number of countries involved in the physical search for the jet has nearly doubled over the past two days to 26, after satellite and military radar data projected two dauntingly large corridors the plane might have flown through.
The northern corridor stretches in an arc over south and central Asia, while the other swoops deep into the southern Indian Ocean towards Australia.
Malaysia announced that it was deploying its naval and air force assets to the southern corridor, with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowing substantial assistance.