The final words from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, “All Right, good night”, apparently delivered in a calm voice, were spoken after the plane was seized and transmission equipment disabled, it was revealed on Sunday.
It separately emerged that the aircraft, which went missing over nine days ago, could have landed and continued to submit the hourly ‘pings’ to a satellite receiver for up to seven hours after the last contact.
Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s transport minister, cast new light on the final moments before the plane containing 239 people vanished without trace.
He revealed that the plane’s ACARS system which signals its speed, altitude, position and fuel levels via satellite was disabled before the captain calmly wished his air traffic control colleagues “good night” at the moment the plane left Malaysian airspace and entered Vietnamese control.
It implies the captain, one of Malaysia Airlines’ most experienced pilots, was either speaking under duress after terrorists had seized control of his plane, or as its hijacker.
The police investigation into Captain Zaharie Shah was stepped up on Sunday, as officers removed the flight simulator he had built at his home to be analysed for any clues that could suggest he was practising to deliberately divert the plane.
Capt Zaharie was a keen supporter of Malaysia’s pro-democracy opposition party, whose leader Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced, again, last week to five years in prison on sodomy charges.
However, friends of the pilot have denied claims he had been in court for the hearing. There were also reports that Capt Zaharie’s wife and three children moved out of the family home the day before flight MH370 went missing.
However, there has been no evidence produced to suggest Capt Zaharie was involved in terrorism. Security agencies have reportedly cleared the vast majority of passengers on the flight, finding “no negative records”.
Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police stressed, however, that all 239 people on board the aircraft remained under investigation.
One former British military attache told The Telegraph that disabling the ACARS system on a Boeing 777 could usually only be done by a skilled and experienced pilot because there is no simple switch – it must be closed down by a series of circuit breakers on a panel. Investigators have said someone on board the plane first disabled the ACARS system about 40 minutes after take-off. The ACARS equipment sends information about the jet’s engines and other data to the airline.
Around 14 minutes later, the transponder that identifies the plane to commercial radar systems was also shut down. The fact that both systems went dark separately offered strong evidence that the plane’s disappearance was deliberate.
The search area was expanded yesterday to include 11 countries the plane might have flown over, Hishammuddin said, adding that the number of countries involved in the operation had increased from 14 to 25.
“The search was already a highly complex, multinational effort,” he said. “It has now become even more difficult.”