IT WAS always going to be significant that the Malaysian prime minister himself, Najib Razak, took the daily press conference on March 15th that is usually given by his underlings. Sure enough, Mr Najib had momentous news, that the authorities now blame “deliberate” action for whatever happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, now missing for more than a week.
He stopped short of calling this a hijacking, but experts now agree that this is what must have happened; so catastrophic mechanical failure, or pilot error, are now ruled out. But whether this deliberate action was that of a deranged pilot, other members of the crew, some of the passengers, or even someone else, is unknown. Furthermore, the search for MH370 just got a lot harder. Authorities from 25 countries are now being obliged to scour a much larger area than before, over land as well as sea.
Mr Najib announced two vital new bits of information. The plane’s communication systems were systematically disabled after take-off, and after its last contact with air-traffic control over the South China Sea it was probably flying for about another seven hours. The plane was diverted back across peninsular Malaysia and flew off in a north-westerly direction. It certainly had enough fuel on board to do this.
Given the fact that the plane continued flying for so long, the search area has now been widened spectacularly, along two corridors. The first is northwards, across China towards Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and beyond, and the second southwards, towards Indonesia and the Indian Ocean. Given the vast distances and areas involved, it might well take a lot longer to find the plane, or at least some debris if it did indeed crash. But the hijacking hypothesis, and long flying time, also raises the slim hope that the plane might have landed somewhere, and that the passengers therefore might just be alive. Some family members therefore welcomed the news.
The fact that a hijacking of some type has now been confirmed as the most likely cause of MH370’s disappearance also means that the police are renewing their investigations into the 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board. The police are looking into four possibilities: hijack, sabotage and personal and psychological problems. And as the “deliberate” actions involved in disabling the plane’s communications, and then diverting it onto a new course, clearly required detailed knowledge of the Boeing 777 and no little skill, interest has inevitably focused on the pilot and co-pilot.
Their homes have been searched by the police. In particular, data from the pilot’s own home-built flight simulator is now being examined. He was an experienced pilot, though, whom many colleagues, neighbours and friends have already vouched for. It has already been revealed that he and the younger co-pilot did not specifically ask to fly together on this particular flight, so that sort of conspiracy has been ruled out. Nonetheless, it is not unknown for pilots to seize planes, or even commit suicide by crashing them. This was almost certainly the fate of EgyptAir Flight 990, which went down over the Atlantic in 1999, killing everybody aboard.
But the alternative hypothesis, that some of the passengers will now be revealed to have been terrorists bent on hijacking the plane for political reasons, seems hard to believe. As two Iranians were found to be travelling on false passports several days ago, all the passengers’ backgrounds have, presumably, already been well scrutinised. Or did somebody, somewhere, miss something?
The tragedy for those relatives and families of the passengers is that we now know a bit more about the fate of MH370, but all the new information has done so far is to raise a host of new questions. Picture credit: AFP