- (Photo: Reuters)
The two pilots of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 have come under greater scrutiny, as the last words they spoke to air traffic controllers, "all right, good night," were uttered after one of the plane's automatic tracking systems had been turned off.
The ACARS system, or a maintenance computer that sends back data on the plane's status, had been deliberately deactivated before the voice sign-off, Malaysia's Acting Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said at a press conference Sunday. The Malaysia Airlines plane, a Boeing 777-200ER, has been missing since earlier this month with 239 people on board.
The flight took off at 12:40 a.m. on March 8 from Kuala Lumpur International Airport for Beijing, with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board, including the captain, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and first officer, 27-year-old Fariq Abdul Hamid. The flight lost contact with air traffic controllers 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu.
The plane's communications systems were turned off as the plane crossed the country's northeast coast and flew across the Gulf of Thailand before turning sharply to the west, authorities have said.
Electronic signals it continued to exchange periodically with satellites suggest it could have continued flying for nearly seven hours after flying out of range of Malaysian military radar off the northwest coast, heading toward India, according to Reuters.
The plane had enough fuel to fly for about seven-and-a-half to eight hours.
The timing as well as the informal nature of the phrase uttered from the cockpit, "all right, good night," point to possible hijacking or sabotage of the plane, investigators believe.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has also said evidence is "consistent with the deliberate action of someone on the plane," which may have ended up somewhere between Central Asia and northern Thailand, or between Indonesia and the southern Indian Ocean.
Captain Shah, currently the main focus of the probe, is known to be an ardent supporter of Malaysia's pro-democracy opposition People's Justice Party. Unconfirmed reports Sunday suggested Shah's wife and three children moved out of the family home the day before the flight went missing, according to U.K.'s newspaper The Telegraph.
Some reports claim Shah was outraged after the conviction of the party's leader, Anwar Ibrahim, for sodomy in a trial a day before the plane disappeared. Some believe the trial was politically motivated.
Police on Saturday searched the homes of both pilots. Officials are examining a life-sized flight simulator that was set up at Shah's home. They are also investigating the personal, political and religious backgrounds of the pilots, the other crew members and ground support staff.
Those close to Captain Shah say he couldn't have been involved. "Please, let them find the aircraft first. Zaharie is not suicidal, not a political fanatic as some foreign media are saying," a fellow pilot told Reuters. "Is it wrong for anyone to have an opinion about politics?"
The plane was carrying people from 14 countries and territories: 152 from China; 38 from Malaysia; seven from Indonesia; six from Australia; five from India; three each from France and the United States; two each from New Zealand, Ukraine and Canada; and one each from Russia, Italy, Taiwan, Netherlands and Austria, according to Malaysia Airlines.
Those on board include 50-year-old Philip Wood, an IBM executive from North Texas who moved to East Asia. Two other Americans have been identified as Nicole Meng, 4, and Yan Zhang, 2.
The family described Wood as "incredibly generous, creative and intelligent," who "above all, [cared for] Christ."