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New uncertainties arise about missing Malaysian jetliner

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) - Officials revealed a new timeline Monday suggesting the final voice transmission from the cockpit of the missing Malaysian plane may have occurred before any of its communications systems were disabled, adding 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.

With no wreckage found in one of the most puzzling aviation mysteries of all time, relatives of those on the Boeing 777 have been left in an agonizing limbo.

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 Defense 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," Hishammuddin 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, Ahmad 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.

Airline pilots in the United States cautioned against reading too much into what little is known so far about the actions of the Malaysia Airlines crew.

"You can't take anything off the table until everything is on table, and we don't even have an aircraft," said Boeing 737 pilot Mike Karn, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

Authorities have pointed to the shutdown of the transponders and the ACARS as evidence that someone with a detailed knowledge of the plane was involved. But Bob Coffman, an airline captain and former 777 pilot, said that kind of information is probably available on the Internet.

"We really don't know what happened in the airplane at this point," he said.

Authorities confiscated a flight simulator from the pilot's home Saturday and also visited the home of the co-pilot in what Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar initially said were the first police visits to those homes.

But the government, which has come under criticism abroad for missteps and foot-dragging in releasing information, issued a statement Monday contradicting that account, saying police first visited the pilots' homes as early as March 9, the day after the flight disappeared.

Coffman said the flight simulator could signify nothing more than the pilot's zeal for his job.

"There are people for whom flying is all consuming," he said, noting some pilots like to spend their off-duty hours on simulators at home, commenting on pilot blogs or playing fighter-pilot video games.

Although Malaysian authorities requested that all nations with citizens aboard the flight conduct background checks on them, it wasn't clear how thoroughly they were doing such checks at home. The father of a Malaysian aviation engineer aboard the plane said police had not approached anyone in the family about his 29-year-old son, Mohamad Khairul Amri Selamat, though he added that there was no reason to suspect him.

"It is impossible for him to be involved in something like this," said Selamat Omar, 60. "He is a good boy. ... We are keeping our hopes high. I am praying hard that the plane didn't crash and that he will be back soon."

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.

The vast scope of the search was underlined when a U.S. destroyer that already has helped cover 15,000 square miles (38,850 square kilometers) of water dropped out.

The Navy determined that long-range aircraft were more efficient in looking for the plane or its debris than the USS Kidd and its helicopters, so effective Tuesday the ship was leaving the Indian Ocean search area, said Navy Cmdr. William Marks, spokesman for the 7th Fleet. Navy P-3 and P-8 surveillance aircraft remain available, and can cover 15,000 square miles (38,850 square kilometers) in a nine-hour flight.

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.

Hishammuddin said Monday 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.

Had the plane gone northwest to Central Asia, it would have crossed over countries with busy airspace, and some experts believe it more likely would have gone south, although Malaysian authorities are not ruling out the northern corridor and are eager for radar data that might confirm or rule out that route.

The northern corridor crosses through countries including China, India and Pakistan - all of which have said they have seen no sign of the plane. China, where two-thirds of the passengers were from, is providing several planes and 21 satellites for the search, Premier Li Keqiang said in a statement.

"Factors involved in the incident continue to multiply, the area of search-and-rescue continues to broaden, and the level of difficulty increases, but as long as there is one thread of hope, we will continue an all-out effort," Li said.

Indonesia focused on Indian Ocean waters west of Sumatra, air force spokesman Rear Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto said.

Australia agreed to Malaysia's request to take the lead in searching the southern Indian Ocean with four Orion maritime planes that also would be joined by New Zealand and U.S. aircraft, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.

"Australia will do its duty in this matter," Abbott told Parliament. "We will do our duty to the families of the 239 people on that aircraft who are still absolutely devastated by their absence, and who are still profoundly, profoundly saddened by this as yet unfathomed mystery."

The southern Indian Ocean is the world's third-deepest and one of the most remote stretches of water, with little radar coverage.


Associated Press writers Joan Lowy and Robert Burns in Washington, Chris Brummitt, Jim Gomez and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Australia, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

Join the discussion

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jamlar2 March 17 2014 at 7:04 PM

On Mar. 8 at about 7pm, myself and at least 3 other people in our condo witnessed a large jet air-craft flying quite low over our complex in Springfield, Or. It appeared to be on fire with flames shooting from it. It was flying from east to west and was very bright. We went on line and sent an e-mail to the tip line for our local newspaper but got no reply. Many planes fly over or into our metro area, but this one attracted our attention because it was flying so low right over the city.

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1 reply
Elizabeth jamlar2 March 17 2014 at 7:12 PM

It would not have been this plane, as it did not carry sufficient fuel to get that far.

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JohnCrumpOldBrit March 17 2014 at 10:32 PM

It seems obvious to me that the plane went down SOMEWHERE? The sudden climb to 45k ft could have been a tussel in the cockpit with the pilot pulling the plane up. This altitude would have made everyone plane pass out I would think, then the plane would have fallen at a rapid rate into to what ever it was over at the time.

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2 replies
etrouble03 JohnCrumpOldBrit March 17 2014 at 10:38 PM

Obvious to you that the plane went down somewhere......

they can't get nothin past you, can they?

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1 reply
J E KOLASH etrouble03 March 17 2014 at 10:51 PM

LOL very hard..nice zinger

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rpthe1 JohnCrumpOldBrit March 17 2014 at 10:44 PM

no it wouldn't if the cabin was still pressurized. Unpressurized 16,000 feet would put everyone out.

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Rob Gambelunghe March 18 2014 at 8:07 AM

One of the pilots took it to the deepest part of the ocean, and dumped it. Never to be found

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1 reply
dontberidiculous Rob Gambelunghe March 18 2014 at 9:49 AM

unlikely. Planes are not structurally built to withstand (A) An impact with the ocean. Any attempt at a nosedive in a commercial jetliner would promptly snap the wings, dump fuel everywhere in the ocean, and leave evidence everywhere. (B) Pressure from depth. This would rupture the fuselage and send anything buoyant to the surface. Luggage, etc...

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drepke March 18 2014 at 8:10 AM

Now we see that the Malaysian authories are over their heads with this investigation we have the clowns. Time to send in the clones.

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oldmanhoo March 18 2014 at 8:10 AM

These guys are becoming Malaysia's version of the Keystone Cops! They could've starred in the movie Dumb and Dumber.

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brainburst March 17 2014 at 6:34 PM

Why on earth are the transponders even allowed to be disabled? This shouldn't even be possible in the air.

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1 reply
Scal8585 brainburst March 17 2014 at 6:50 PM

Controllers may require the transponder to be turned off if it sends faulty data. In that situation there is a backup. Why that did not kick in automatically is something that should be looked into after this incident. No commercial aircraft should have the abilty to "intentionally" fly undetected.

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Gina and Mark D March 18 2014 at 8:11 AM

It appears to me that this plane has already touched down some where avoiding radar by flying below deck...after all the plane can only go as far as fuel will allow. Maybe if the fuel limits were to be explored it might shed a bit more light on the end where-abouts this plane could have touched down... just my opinion.

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1 reply
dontberidiculous Gina and Mark D March 18 2014 at 9:45 AM

They've tried that, it went from 4 hrs of fuel all the way up to 8 now. Not to mention all it would take is a big hangar and a fuel truck on some random island in the ocean. They could refuel with cover and take it about anywhere from there. But what about the passengers? Every minute that goes by makes it less likely they have been fed, watered, etc...

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koea34 March 17 2014 at 6:31 PM

I wonder if they ever thought of the plane at a lower altitude and 1/2 to 2/3 throtle that panw with a full load of fuel may make it to Russia or maybe Africa?

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1 reply
quickmatch koea34 March 17 2014 at 6:39 PM

Maybe if it flew at sea level and 50mph it could get to America.

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bplacek March 17 2014 at 6:30 PM

have flown to thailand with various stops in asian countries,only bangkok had decent security leaving

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hotspringspark March 18 2014 at 8:28 AM

The facts; we dont know what happened but in the end, in my opinion, they will be found at the bottom of the deep blue sea.

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1 reply
savannahswithgod hotspringspark March 18 2014 at 9:02 AM

The only positive that fact will bring about is the fishes will eat. And if you board a airline you know they don't come down sometimes as you plan.

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