KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 turned into a criminal investigation Saturday, after Malaysia declared that the plane had been deliberately diverted and then flown for as long as seven hours toward an unknown point far from its scheduled route of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia said Saturday afternoon that he would seek the help of governments across a large expanse of Asia in the search for the jet, a Boeing 777, which has been missing for a week and had 239 people on board.
The announcement shifted the focus of the investigation to the crew and passengers on the plane.
The United Kingdom’s Daily Mail Online website reported Saturday night that the pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was an “obsessive” supporter of Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, and reported that hours before the flight departed, he had attended his trial in which Ibrahim was jailed for five years.
Police officers were seen Saturday going to Shah’s home in a gated compound near Kuala Lumpur, and authorities said a search had taken place. The Mail reported that authorities found a flight simulator that Shah had built on the premises.
Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities released a map showing that the last satellite signal from the plane had been sent from somewhere along one of two arcs spanning large distances across Asia.
A satellite orbiting 22,250 miles over the middle of the Indian Ocean received the transmission that, based on the angle from which the plane sent it, came from somewhere along one of the two arcs. One arc runs from the southern border of Kazakhstan in Central Asia to northern Thailand, passing over some hot spots of global insurgency and highly militarized areas. The other arc runs from near Jakarta to the Indian Ocean, roughly 1,000 miles off the west coast of Australia.
According to a person who has been briefed on the progress of the investigation, the two “corridors” were derived from calculations by engineers from the satellite communications company Inmarsat, which were provided to investigators.
The plane changed course after it took off. “These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Najib said.
He said one communications system had been disabled as the plane flew over the northeast coast of Malaysia. A second system abruptly stopped broadcasting its location, altitude, speed and other information at 1:21 a.m., while the plane was a third of the way across the Gulf of Thailand from Malaysia to Vietnam.
Military radar data showed that the plane turned and flew west across northern Malaysia before arcing out over the wide northern end of the Strait of Malacca, headed for the Indian Ocean.
The flight had been scheduled to land at 6:30 a.m. in Beijing, so when its last signal came, at 8:11 a.m., Najib said, it could have been nearly out of fuel.
“The investigation team is making further calculations, which will indicate how far the aircraft may have flown after the last point of contact,” he said, reading a statement in English. “Due to the type of satellite data, we are unable to confirm the precise location of the plane when it last made contact with a satellite.”
After Najib’s announcement at an airport hotel, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said technical experts would be sent to Malaysia. Two-thirds of the people on the jet were Chinese citizens.
A ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said China would shift its planes and ships to search areas west of Malaysia, a region that includes India and other nations that have tensions with China.
American investigators cited the need for hard information in the inquiry.
“It doesn’t mean anything; all it is is a theory,” one senior U.S. official said. “Find the plane, find the black boxes and then we can figure out what happened. It has to be based on something, and until they have something more to go on it’s all just theories.”
American investigators have much of the flight data obtained from radar and satellites, but have been given far less information about the pilots and passengers. Soon after the plane disappeared, FBI agents and other Americans “scrubbed” the names of pilots and passengers – including two Iranian men traveling on stolen passports – to determine whether they had any terrorist connections, but found none, the officials said.
Officials in Washington say they are frustrated because they believe that the FBI could be of assistance.
Mikael Robertsson, a co-founder of Flightradar24, a global aviation tracking service, said the way the plane’s communications had been shut down pointed to the involvement of someone with considerable aviation expertise and knowledge of the route, possibly a crew member, willing or unwilling.
The Boeing’s transponder was switched off just as the plane passed from Malaysian to Vietnamese air traffic control space, making it more likely that its silence would not arouse attention, he said by phone from Sweden.
“I think the timing of turning off the signal just after you have left Malaysian air traffic control indicates someone did this on purpose, and he found the perfect moment when he wasn’t in control by Malaysia or Vietnam. He was like in no-man’s country.”
Xu Ke, a former commercial pilot who has advised the Chinese government on aviation security, said the details suggested that at least one crew member was involved in seizing control of the aircraft, either willingly or under pressure.
“The timing of turning off the transponder suggests that this involved someone with knowledge of how to avoid air traffic control without attracting attention,” he said in a telephone interview.
On Saturday, the announcement from Malaysia brought dismay in Beijing among family members and friends of the many Chinese who were on the missing plane. For a week, the families and friends have gathered at a hotel, receiving updates from Malaysia Airlines employees and waiting for news.
On Saturday, James Wood, the brother of Philip Wood, an American passenger on the flight, said the wait has been difficult.