KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian authorities on Sunday were examining an elaborate flight simulator taken from the home of the pilots of the missing jetliner, after it was established that whoever flew off with the Boeing 777 had intimate knowledge of the cockpit and knew how to avoid detection when navigating around Asia.
Satellite data suggested the plane flew for at least 7 ½ hours — more than six hours after the last radio contact — and that it could have reached north into Central Asia or deep into the southern Indian Ocean, posing awesome challenges for efforts to recover the plane and flight data recorders vital to solving the mystery of what happened on board.
Given that the northern route would take the plane over countries with busy airspace, a southern path is seen as much more likely. The southern Indian Ocean is one of the most remote stretches of water in the world, the third deepest and has little radar coverage. The wreckage might take months — or longer — to find, or might never be located.
There appeared to be some confusion Sunday as India, one of 12 countries contributing planes and vessels to the search, said it had stopped looking while waiting for confirmation from Malaysia on where to look. Malaysia’s acting transport minister tweeted he was in meetings to decide the “next course of action” after Saturday’s revelations.
In the first detailed findings on what happened to the plane, Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday someone severed communications with the ground and deliberately diverted Flight 370 back over the Malay Peninsula after it departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early on March 8 with 239 people on board.
In a statement on Sunday, Malaysia’s Transport Ministry said that police searched the homes of both the pilot and the co-pilot on Saturday. It didn’t say whether this was the first time they had done this since the plane went missing eight days ago.
It said police were examining an elaborate flight simulator taken from the home of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
The statement also said they were investigating engineers who may have had contact with the plane before it took off.
The flight departed Kuala Lumpur at 12:40 a.m. heading toward Beijing. Investigators now have a high degree of certainty that one of the plane’s communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) — was partially disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia, Najib said. Shortly afterward, someone on board switched off the aircraft’s transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic controllers.
Najib confirmed that Malaysian air force defense radar picked up traces of the plane turning back westward, crossing over Peninsular Malaysia into the northern stretches of the Strait of Malacca. Authorities previously had said this radar data could not be verified.
The air force has yet to explain why it didn’t spot the plane flying over the country, and respond. The search was initially focused on the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, where the plane severed its communication links. That search has now ended.
“One that thing that does bother me greatly is the fact that unidentified aircraft could navigate back over Malaysia and out to sea without a physical or material response to that fact,” said Britain-based aviation security consultant Chris Yates. “They were not watching.”
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.