Kuala Lumpur: The latest evidence emerging from the United States suggests that missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was set on a deliberate navigational route in the opposite direction to its scheduled flight path, swinging the focus of police investigations back to the pilots, crew and passengers.
Evidence suggests that somebody with flying experience set the Boeing plane's route manually or programmed its auto-pilot so that it flew hundreds of kilometres off course into the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean.
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MH370 search goes west
US officials helping with the search for Flight MH370 shift focus to the Indian Ocean region but Malaysia Airlines says likelihood of finding missing plane there is very low.
Key evidence also indicates a gap of some minutes between the time the plane's transponder stopped and a messaging system cut out, lessening the likelihood of a catastrophic mid-air explosion.
Information about the changed route emerged as theories about the plane’s abrupt disappearance continued to swirl, perhaps none wilder than a tweet from News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch.
He wrote: ‘‘World seems transfixed by 777 disappearance. Maybe no crash but stolen, effectively hidden, perhaps in Northern Pakistan, like Bin Laden.’’
The New York Times reported investigators also are looking at the possibility that a shipment of lithium batteries in the airliner’s cargo hold may have caught fire and felled the aircraft.
A senior American official who had been briefed on the contents listed on the plane’s cargo manifest said a “significant load” of lithium batteries had been aboard — raising suspicions because of previous cargo-plane crashes attributed to lithium battery shipments, which can overheat and cause intense fires.
But that possibility is inconsistent with information that the plane may have kept flying for hours after it vanished.
While the media focus has so far being on the so-called 27 year-old “party pilot” Fariq Abdul Hamid, who broke airlines rules by inviting two women passengers into the cockpit of plane in 2011, attention has now swung to the 53 year-old senior pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
Television journalists in Kuala Lumpur reported that police had raided Mr Zaharie's home as evidence emerged pointing to piracy or pilot suicide, but officials denied it, saying his background was under the same scrutiny as all the 239 people on board.
Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said if the investigation leads to the need to search Mr Zaharie's house and it is within the law “we will do it.”
Malaysia Airlines played down the significance of Mr Zaharie having a flight simulator built into his home using three large computer monitors and other accessories.
Asked of its was unusual to have such equipment at home, Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said: “everyone is free to do his own hobby.”
Born in northern Penang state, Mr Zaharie was passionate about aviation, posting Facebook pictures of himself posing with his remote-controlled aircraft, which included a lightweight twin-engine helicopter and an amphibious aircraft.
He was a grandfather who played football with neighbourhood youngsters, was a good cook and supported Malaysia's opposition parties and had more than 18,000 hours flying experience.
Mr Fariq, the son of a high ranking civil servant, was contemplating marriage after just graduating to the cockpit of a Boeing 777.
As examination of the psychological backgrounds and personal lives of those on board continues, none have so far become official suspects in one of the most baffling mysteries in the history of modern aviation.
Authorities in Kuala Lumpur insist they are investigating every possible scenario for the plane vanishing on its scheduled flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early on March 8, including a mid-air disintegration caused by either a catastrophic mechanical fault or the planting of a bomb.
They have refused to comment on several United States media reports on the existence of military radar and signals collected by satellites which suggest the plane inexplicably turned around and flew back over the Malaysia peninsula and headed towards the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Quoting sources familiar with the investigation, Reuters news agency said an unidentified aircraft, which investigators believe was the missing plane, followed a route between navigational waypoints, indicating it was being flown by someone with aviation training.
Mr Hishammuddin, the public face of his government's search effort, said the plane's transponder “could have been switched off deliberately or under duress because of an explosion.”
“From the start, we are looking into all possibilities…I cannot confirm whether there was no hijacking but I do not want to go into the realm of speculation,” he said.
Malaysian officials said they hope foreign experts brought in evaluate satellite information from a number of unnamed countries, but believed to include the US, will reveal over the next couple of days how the plane vanished, providing a critical breakthrough after a week of false leads, misinformation and confusion.
However the possibility of the plane flying in the direction of the Andaman islands and Indian Ocean has made one of the largest searches ever mounted in Asia more difficult, with thousands of square kilometres to be searched in the world's third largest ocean.
Aviation experts say it is possible, but highly unlikely, that if the plane was hijacked it could have landed without being detected.
The Indian Ocean region is highly militarised because of its strategic importance to India.
The plane had enough fuel to fly for several thousand kilometres.
Mr Hishammuddin, who is also acting transport minister, said the search was being expanded because nothing had been found during a week of searching.
“A normal investigation becomes narrower with time….as new information focuses the search, but this is not a normal investigation,” he told reporters.
“In this case, the information has forced us to look further and further afield.”
Mr Hishammuddin said the search would only be scaled down in the South China Sea, where the plane disappeared, if conclusive evidence emerged it was elsewhere.
The United States is sending the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd to the Indian Ocean, joining Indian ships and planes already searching the region.
Over seven days search planes have directed ships to numerous oil slicks and debris over 27,000 square kilometres of the South China Sea but none have found to be from MH370.
Fifty-seven ships and 48 aircraft from 13 countries, including Australia, are involved in the search.