KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — Australia took the lead Monday in searching for the missing Boeing 777 over the southern Indian Ocean as Malaysia appealed for radar data and search planes to help in the unprecedented hunt through a vast swath of Asia stretching northwest into Kazakhstan.
Investigators say Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was deliberately diverted and its communications equipment switched off shortly after takeoff during an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8. Suspicion has fallen on anyone aboard the plane with aviation experience, in particular the pilot and co-pilot.
On Sunday, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference that that the final, reassuring words from the cockpit — “All right, good night” — were spoken to air traffic controllers after the ACARS system was shut off. Whoever spoke did not mention any trouble on board.
In a news conference Monday morning, Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said for the first time that “initial investigations show it was the co-pilot who spoke,” but government officials did not say the speaker’s identity had been confirmed.
Police searched the house of co-pilot Fariq Hamid, over the weekend, though authorities have said no evidence has been found to implicate either pilot in any potential wrongdoing. CBS News’ Seth Doane rang the doorbell at Fariq’s house over the weekend, but nobody answered. Neighbors told Doane they had seen police cars and motorcycles at the address.
The neighbors said Fariq’s family was relatively quiet and kept to themselves. They said the 27-year-old went to a good school and had a father in government. One man described the pilot as “a nice boy” who “goes to the mosque to pray quite often.”
Malaysian police confiscated a flight simulator from the home of the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, Saturday, in what Malaysia’s police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said Sunday was the first visit to their homes. The government issued a statement Monday contradicting that account by saying that police first visited the pilots’ home on March 9, the day after the flight.
Authorities have said someone on board the plane first disabled one of its communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS — about 40 minutes after takeoff. 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.
Malaysia’s police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, said he asked countries with citizens on board the plane to investigate their backgrounds, no doubt looking for anyone with terrorism ties, aviation skills or prior contact with the pilots. He said that the intelligence agencies of some countries had already done so and found nothing suspicious, but he was waiting for others to respond.
Police confiscated the elaborate flight simulator that Zaharie had built in his home and reassembled it in their offices to study it for clues, Khalid said.
Zaharie, 53, who has three grown children and one grandchild, had previously posted photos online of the simulator, which was made with three large computer monitors and other accessories. Earlier this week, the head of Malaysia Airlines said the simulator was not in itself cause for any suspicion.
A CBS News crew tried Sunday to visit the gated community where Zaharie lives, but the crew was turned away by beefed-up security.
Doane reported that investigators were also paying close attention to one of the passengers who was a flight engineer for a private aviation charter company. He was believed to be heading for Beijing to check on one of his company’s charter aircraft.
In addition to those aboard the flight, Malaysian police were also investigating engineers and ground staff who may have had contact with the plane before it took off.
Even though the ACARS system was disabled on Flight 370, it continued to emit faint hourly pulses that were recorded by a satellite. The last “ping” was sent out at 8:11 a.m. — 7 hours and 31 minutes after the plane took off. That placed the jet somewhere in a huge arc as far north as Kazakhstan in Central Asia or far into the southern Indian Ocean.
While many people believe the plane has crashed, there is a small possibility it may have landed somewhere and be relatively intact. Affendi, the air force general, and Hishammuddin, the defense minister, said it was possible for the plane to “ping” when it was on the ground if its electrical systems were undamaged.
Australia said it was sending one of its two AP-3C Orion aircraft involved in the search to remote islands in the Indian Ocean at Malaysia’s request. The plane will search the north and west of the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian territory with an airstrip about 745 miles southwest of Indonesia, military chief Gen. David Hurley said.
Given that a northern route would have sent the plane over countries with busy airspace, most experts say the person in control of the aircraft would more likely have chosen to go south. The southern Indian Ocean is the world’s third-deepest and one of the most remote stretches of water in the world, with little radar coverage.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament that he agreed to take the lead scouring the southern Indian Ocean for the “ill-fated aircraft” during a conversation Monday with Malaysia’s leader Najib Razak.
Given the expanse of land and water that might need to be searched, finding the wreckage could take months or longer. Or it might never be located. Establishing what happened with any degree of certainty will probably require evidence from cockpit voice recordings and the plane’s flight-data recorders.
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