Police searched the luxury home of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah on Saturday after it was revealed the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 turned back from its scheduled flight path over the South China Sea and flew for more than seven hours with its communication tracking device disabled.
The plane’s reversal of direction back across the Malay Peninsula was ‘‘consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane", Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told a news conference.
"In view of this latest development the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board," he added.
Minutes after the Malaysian leader spoke to the media about the latest findings regarding flight MH370, police raided the home of the aircraft's 53-year-old captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, for any evidence that he could have been involved in foul play.
The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER vanished from radar screens a week ago with 239 crew and passengers aboard.
According to Malaysia Airlines, Shah joined the airline in 1981 and was certified by Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation as a simulator test examiner. He had 18,365 flying hours.
On Saturday, a police van with a large contingent of officers inside passed through a security gate at the entrance to the luxury compound where Shah, a father-of-three, lives with his wife Faisa.
The family lives in a luxury gated community in Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian media reports quoted colleagues describing Shah as a “superb pilot”, who also served as an examiner, authorised by the Malaysian Civil Aviation Department, to conduct simulator tests for pilots.
Police spent two hours inside the home, and left carrying small bags, similar to shopping bags, CNN reported.
Soon after, four plain-clothed police officers were reportedly seen at the home of the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27.
Hamid, 27, who had 2763 hours of flying, was last week the focus of media reports he invited two women into the cockpit on a flight from Thailand to Malaysia in 2011, where they posed for photos.
According to new data, the Boeing 777 was still flying at 8.11am, seven hours after it disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appear to show the plane climbing to 45,000 feet, which is above the approved altitude, and making a sharp turn to the right not long after it disappeared from civilian radar, The New York Times reported.
This information further adds to the increasing evidence pointing to a deliberate diversion by an experienced pilot.
Mikael Robertsson, a founder of Flightradar24, a global aviation tracking service, told The New York Times the way the plane’s communications were shut down pointed to the involvement of someone with considerable aviation expertise and knowledge of the air 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, thus making it more likely that the plane’s absence from communications would not arouse attention, Mr. Robertsson told The Times from Sweden.
He said pilots were supposed to always be "in contact with air traffic control in some country".
“Instead of contacting the Vietnam air traffic control, the transponder signal was turned off, so 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.”
Dozens of ships and planes are being redirected from the South China Sea to search for the plane thousands of kilometres away from where it vanished in the early hours of March 8.
The countries where the plane could have reached are Laos, Thailand, China, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan as well as the vast Indian Ocean and a body of water in Indonesia known as the Java Sea.
The plane could have flown as far as the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Mr Najib said.
After the press conference, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a stern statement demanding to know more and urging Malaysia to continue providing it with “thorough and exact information” on the missing plane.
A foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said China would send a technical team to Malaysia to assist with the search and would shift its search planes and ships to areas west of Malaysia in accordance with the new information received.
China’s official Xinhua news agency ran a blistering attack on Malaysia’s handling of the investigation: "It is undeniable that the disclosure of such vital information is painfully belated – more than seven excruciating days after the 227 passengers and 12 crew members lost contact with their beloved relatives and friends,” it said on Saturday.
“And due to the absence – or at least lack – of timely authoritative information, massive efforts have been squandered, and numerous rumors have been spawned, repeatedly racking the nerves of the awaiting families.”
In Beijing, families awaiting news at the Lido Hotel followed the Malaysian Prime Minister’s press conference live on television screens and audibly gasped at the new revelations. Some expressed hope that the news of a possible hijack could actually increase the likelihood that their loved ones remained alive, while others, having already waited more than a week, were simply desperate for verifiable information.
"As next of kin we already have prepared for the worst," Wang Tianyu, whose father was on board, told The Wall Street Journal. "Now, whether it was flown somewhere on purpose or not on purpose, it's not a big deal. What we really want to know is where the plane is. It doesn't matter what direction the plane went. What we want is confirmation. The rest isn't that important."
The father of another passenger told CNN he hoped the plane was hijacked because that gave him hope his son could be alive.
"I hope they are alive no matter how small the chance is," he said.
Authorities have been unable to confirm the location of the plane when it last made contact with satellites because of the type of data, the Prime Minister told a packed news briefing in Kuala Lumpur late on Saturday.
But he did not explain how the plane’s communications could have been switched off and the plane turned around other than by someone with knowledge of flying one of the world’s most sophisticated planes.
Mr Najib said despite media reports the plane was hijacked, ‘‘I wish to be very clear: we are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate from its original flight path.’’
Earlier in the day News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch tweeted one of the wilder theories about the plane: ‘‘World seems transfixed by 777 disappearance. Maybe no crash but stolen, effectively hidden, perhaps in Northern Pakistan, like Bin Laden.’’
One of the corridors puts the plane on a passage towards Afghanistan.
Mr Najib said that based on new satellite information ‘‘we can say with a high degree of certainty that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System was disabled just before the aircraft reached the east coast of peninsula Malaysia."
‘‘Shortly afterwards, near the border between Malaysian and Vietnam air traffic control, the aircraft’s transponder was switched off,’’ he said.
Mr Najib said investigators were ‘‘making further calculations which will indicate how far the aircraft may have flown after the last point of contact.’’
But he said authorities in Malaysia and other countries had determined the plane’s last satellite communication was in one of two possible corridors taking in multiple countries. One is a corridor stretching from the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to northern Thailand. The other is a southern corridor stretching approximately from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean, off Australia’s coast.
‘‘The investigation team is working to further refine the information,’’ Mr Najib said.
Authorities have called off the search in the South China Sea that involved 43 ships and 58 aircraft from 14 countries and are assessing new search areas.
While the media focus has so far been on the so-called 27-year-old ‘‘party pilot’’ Fariq Abdul Hamid, who broke airline rules by inviting two women passengers into the cockpit of a 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 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 is 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 is a grandfather who played football with neighbourhood youngsters, is known as a good cook and has supported Malaysia’s opposition parties. He had more than 18,000 hours’ flying experience.
Fariq Hamid, the son of a high ranking civil servant, was contemplating marriage after just graduating to the cockpit of a Boeing 777.
As investigation of the psychological backgrounds and personal lives of those on board continues, none have so far become official suspects in what remains one of the most baffling mysteries in the history of modern aviation.
Mr Najib said the new information was based on ‘‘raw satellite data that was obtained from the satellite data service provider. We can confirm that the aircraft shown in the primary radar data flight was MH370.’’
Forensic work was carried out by international aviation agencies and Malaysian authorities.
‘‘Clearly the search for MH370 has entered a new phase,’’ Mr Najib said, reading a prepared statement.
Additional reporting from Philip Wen, The New York Times, Reuters
The story Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Police raid home of lead pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.