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New timeline adds to mystery over missing jetliner

Last transmission may have been sent before communication systems cut

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Lai Seng Sin / The Associated Press
A woman holds a message for passengers aboard the missing jetliner on Monday.

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Lai Seng Sin / The Associated Press A woman holds a message for passengers aboard the missing jetliner on Monday.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Officials revealed a new timeline Monday suggesting the final voice transmission from the cockpit of the missing Malaysian plane may have occurred before any of its communications systems were disabled, adding more uncertainty about who aboard might have been to blame.

The search for Flight 370, which vanished early March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, has now been expanded deep into the northern and southern hemispheres. Australian vessels scoured the southern Indian Ocean and China offered 21 of its satellites to help Malaysia in the unprecedented hunt.

With no wreckage found in one of the most puzzling aviation mysteries of all time, relatives of those on the Boeing 777 have been left in an agonizing limbo.

Investigators say the plane was deliberately diverted during its overnight flight and flew off course for hours. They haven't ruled out hijacking, sabotage, or pilot suicide, and they are checking the backgrounds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members, as well as the ground crew, to see if links to terrorists, personal problems or psychological issues could be factors.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said finding the plane was still the main focus, and he did not rule out it might be discovered intact.

"The fact that there was no distress signal, no ransom notes, no parties claiming responsibility, there is always hope," Hishammuddin said at a news conference.

Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said an initial investigation indicated the last words heard from the plane by ground controllers -- "All right, good night" -- were spoken by the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid. Had it been a voice other than that of Fariq or the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, it would have been the clearest indication yet of something amiss in the cockpit before the flight went off course.

Malaysian officials said earlier those words came after one of the jetliner's data communications systems -- the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System -- had been switched off, suggesting the voice from the cockpit may have been trying to deceive ground controllers.

However, Ahmad said while the last data transmission from ACARS -- which gives plane performance and maintenance information -- came before that, it was still unclear at what point the system was switched off, making any implications of the timing murkier.

The new information opened the possibility both ACARS and the plane's transponders, which make the plane visible to civilian air traffic controllers, were turned off at about the same time. It also suggests the message delivered from the cockpit could have preceded any of the severed communications.

Airline pilots cautioned against reading too much into what little is known so far about the actions of the Malaysia Airline crew.

"You can't take anything off table until everything is on table, and we don't even have an aircraft," said Boeing 737 pilot Mike Karn, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

Authorities have pointed to the shutdown of the transponders and the ACARS as evidence someone with a detailed knowledge of the plane was involved. But Bob Coffman, an airline captain and former 777 pilot, said that kind of information is probably available on the Internet.

"We really don't know what happened in the airplane at this point," he said.

Authorities confiscated a flight simulator from the pilot's home Saturday and also visited the home of the co-pilot in what Malaysian police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar initially said was the first police visits to those homes.

But the government, which has come under criticism abroad for missteps and foot-dragging in releasing information, issued a statement Monday contradicting that account, saying police first visited the pilots' homes as early as March 9, the day after the flight disappeared.

"There are people for whom flying is all-consuming in some way, shape or fashion," Coffman said, including pilots who like to spend their off-duty hours on home simulators, commenting online on pilot blogs or playing fighter-pilot video games.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2014 A10

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