Missing Malaysian Flight Mystery Deepens: Pilot Investigated, Foul Play Suspected
It has been over a week since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared without a trace, and the world is nowhere closer to finding either where the airplane and its 239 passengers and crew are to be found, nor what actually happened. Instead, what initially was speculation about a midair disintegration, and subsequently suggested a potential case of airplane terrorism gone wrong, has now transformed into a theory that the pilot and/or crew may have been engaged in "foul play", especially since it appears that based on tracking data, that the plane flew for nearly seven hours after someone "skilled" purposefully shut down its communications and tracking beacon: possibly indicative of a stealthy midair hijacking. However, the same satellite data gave no precise location, and the plane's altered course could have taken it anywhere from central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean.
More importantly, and what is missing so far, is that if indeed this was a hijacking, then where is the list of demands? Or was this merely repossession of something already onboard the plane, i.e. theft, ostesnisbly of something in the cargo hold, or the kidnapping or repossession of one or more passengers on board the plane? Also, if indeed the plane is safely somewhere else, as per the pilot's wishes, then how and why are the 200+ passengers, most of whom likely have portable communication devices, keeping quiet?
On the manifest above, while the main focus so far has been on the two passengers with stolen passports, we wonder how long until the two Ukrainians are thrown into the mix.
As for the topic of the plane's possible location considering the latest satellite tracking data, the Malaysian officials on Saturday released this map showing two corridors that the plane might be located on.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday that, based on newly analyzed satellite data, the plane could have made last made contact anywhere along one of two corridors: one stretching from northern Thailand toward the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border, the other, more southern one stretching from Indonesia to the remote Indian Ocean.
Although U.S. officials previously said they believed the plane could have remained in the air for several extra hours, Najib said Saturday that the flight was still communicating with satellites until 8:11 a.m. — 7 ½ hours after takeoff, and more than 90 minutes after it was due in Beijing. There was no further communication with the plane after that time, Najib said. If the plane was still in the air, it would have been nearing its fuel limit.
The U.S. official said the search area is somewhere along the arc or circumference of a circle with a diameter of thousands of miles.
The new leads about the plane’s path, though ambiguous, have drastically changed a search operation involving more than a dozen nations. Malaysia on Saturday said that efforts would be terminated in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, the spot where the plane first disappeared from civilian radar.
Malaysian authorities are now likely to look for help from other countries in Southeast and South Asia, seeking mysterious or unidentified readings that their radar systems might have picked up.
The largely clueless Malaysian police, with few leads to puruse, have rapidly shifted their suspicion on the team of pilot and co-pilot. Reuters reports that minutes after Malaysian leader Najib Razak outlined investigators' latest findings about flight MH370 at a news conference, police began searching the house of the aircraft's 53-year-old captain for any evidence that he could have been involved in foul play.
Investigative sources told Reuters on Friday they believed the plane was following a commonly used navigational route when it was last spotted early on Saturday, northwest of Malaysia.
Their suspicion has hardened that it was flown off-course by the pilot or co-pilot, or someone else with detailed knowledge of how to fly and navigate a large commercial aircraft. No details have emerged of any passengers or crew with militant links or psychological problems that could explain a motive for sabotaging the flight.
The experienced captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a flying enthusiast who spent his off days tinkering with a flight simulator of the plane that he had set up at home, current and former co-workers said. Malaysia Airlines officials did not believe he would have sabotaged the flight.
The 27-year-old co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid was religious and serious about his career, family and friends said, countering news reports suggesting he was a cockpit Romeo who was reckless on the job.
A photo of the flight simulator set up in the pilot's house is shown below:
AFP provides some additional perspective on the pilot:
An Australian television report broadcast an interview with a young South African woman who said Fariq and another pilot colleague invited them into the cockpit of a flight he co-piloted from Phuket, Thailand to Kuala Lumpur in 2011. Since 9/11, passengers have been prohibited from entering cockpits during a flight. Malaysia Airlines has said it was "shocked" by the report, but that it could not verify the claims.
The son of a high-ranking official in the public works department of a Malaysian state, Fariq joined Malaysia Airlines when he was 20.
He is a mild-mannered "good boy" who regularly visited his neighbourhood mosque outside Kuala Lumpur, said the mosque's imam, or spiritual leader.
The far more seasoned Zaharie joined MAS in 1981 and had logged 18,365 hours of flying time.
Malaysian media reports quoted colleagues calling Zaharie a "superb pilot", who also served as an examiner, authorised by the Malaysian Civil Aviation Department, to conduct simulator tests for pilots.
The whole passenger manifest is likely to be re-examined.
So if the pilots were not involved, could it have been a hijacking by someone among the passengers (with or without the complict participation of the pilors)? Here suspicion will once again fall on two passengers who boarded with stolen EU passports. Interpol had identified the two men as Iranians: Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar, who used a stolen Italian passport, and Pouria Nourmohammadi, who used an Austrian one. Both passports had been stolen in Thailand. Interpol chief Ronald Noble said last Tuesday that the men were thought to be illegal immigrants who had travelled from Doha to Kuala Lumpur in a round-about bid to reach Europe.
Interpol's information suggested the pair were "probably not terrorists", Noble said at the time.
Adam Dolnik, a professor of terrorism studies at the University of Wollongong in Australia, said he still doubted that organised terrorism was behind the Malaysian plane mystery.
While a group like Al-Qaeda "would love to bring down an airliner", a Malaysia Airlines plane made little sense as a target and the stolen passports had an "amateurish" element, Dolnik said. "Terrorists don't do (hijackings), because the chances of success have gone down," he said, citing the challenge of bringing weapons onto a plane and subduing other passengers.
There has been no indication yet of any possible terrorist involvement. But some academics suggest the theory requires further consideration. "Investigations should focus on criminal and terrorist motives," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
"It is likely that the aircraft was hijacked by a team knowledgeable about airport and aircraft security. It is likely they are supported by a competent team from the ground."
Which is why instead of merely looking at the passenger manifest, perhaps it is time to look at the cargo manifest as well. Was there anything on board the plane, one serving the all-important Beijing route, that may have made the stealthy theft of the plane a sufficiently attractive risk/return proposition to the pilots?
Purely hypothetically, a 777 has a cargo hold that, in addition to passengers and baggage, can hold somewhere between 20 and 25 tons. 25 tons of gold, on a less than public Malaysia-China "official import-bypassing" route, would have a value of a little over $1 billion, four times more than the value of a new Boeing 777. So perhaps instead of robbing the cargo from the plane, some more enterprising thought would be to get the pilots in on the play, and steal the entire plane, mid-flight.
Of course, all of the above is purely hypothetical, and we are confident once the plane is uncovered safe and sound (or not as the case may be) and with all the cargo accounted for, that yet another crazy conspiracy theory can be disproved.
And still, we wonder, would Malaysia Airlines be so kind as the disclose just what "other" cargo may have been on board the mysterious flight. Inquiring minds are dying to know.
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Stepping away from the conspiracy ledge for a minute, here is the WSJ with the four main unanswered questions about the flight:
Was it a hijacking?
While Mr. Najib suggested that the plane's disappearance was due to "deliberate action," he stopped short of categorizing the event as a hijack. "I wish to be very clear: We are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate from its original flight path."
Aviation experts say that the likelihood of a hijack has increased significantly with the latest information, and a key to solving the mystery is to profile in detail every person aboard the jet. "Everything points to a hijack or something that was planned way in advance," said Mark Martin, an aviation consultant.
Did the plane crash, or did it land somewhere?
No further information was available about the state of the widebody jet and the 239 people on board after the last satellite communication was sent from it. There was no indication as to whether the aircraft crashed into the ocean—as several aviation experts have earlier suspected—or if it had actually landed.
Though experts say it is unlikely such a large jet could land undetected, investigators are actively pursuing the notion that the plane was diverted "with the intention of using it later for another purpose," a person familiar with the matter said earlier to The Wall Street Journal.
The search will now likely involve scores of other countries in South and Central Asia following the new information, raising the possibility that the jet may have reached some of the world's more politically unstable regions.
Whose deliberate actions?
Mr. Najib says the nation's authorities have "refocused" their investigation onto the crew and passengers. Experts say that the 777's multiple communication systems could only have been manually disabled by someone or people with detailed knowledge of the sophisticated jet's inner workings, thus putting the focus on the pilots or with passengers who have aviation experience.
"Whoever flew the aircraft was an outstanding pilot who was familiar with radar evasion techniques and fuel-burn management," said Mr. Martin, the aviation consultant.
Why can't the search parameters be narrowed?
Satellite information disclosed on Saturday indicate that the plane may have taken two possible tracks: a northerly corridor as far as the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and a southerly route extending to the southern Indian Ocean. Mr. Najib explained that the type of satellite data couldn't confirm the precise location of the plane when it last made contact. Investigators are working to "further refine the information" on satellite data.
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Finally, for all those pressed for time, just watch the following clip summarizing all the recent theories and views on flight MH370's whereabouts:
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