Confirmation a missing Malaysian airliner was deliberately diverted has sharpened scrutiny of the passengers and cockpit crew, with police reportedly searching the pilot’s home.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Saturday satellite and radar data clearly indicated the plane’s automated communications were disabled and it turned away from its intended path and flew on for hours.
“These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” he said, adding that investigators had consequently “refocused their investigation into crew and passengers”.
Flight MH370 was under the command of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid.
Malaysian reporters have told AFP news agency they witnessed police enter Zaharie’s home on Saturday, spending two hours there. Police are declining to comment.
The 53-year-old had assembled his own flight simulator at home, according to online tributes describing his passion for flying.
Paul Yap, an aviation lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore, said in his view there were “only a few scenarios” likely to explain what happened if a hijacking occurred.
“First the people involved in the deliberate actions are the pilots, one of them or both of them in cahoots.
“Then we have a scenario where terrorists make the pilots change course and switch off the transponders under duress, maybe threatening to kill passengers,” Yap said.
The transponder of MH370 was switched off around the time analysts said it would have reached its cruising altitude, when pilots often emerge to take a bathroom or coffee break.
It was not clear if police have yet searched the homes of the other crew on Flight MH370, including that of Fariq, 27. His record and personal life have already come under scrutiny.
An Australian television report broadcast an interview with a young South African woman who said Fariq and another pilot colleague invited them into the cockpit of a flight from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur in 2011.
Malaysia Airlines said it was “shocked” by the report but could not verify the claims.
The son of a high-ranking official in the public works department of a Malaysian state, Fariq joined Malaysia Airlines when he was 20.
He is a mild-mannered “good boy” who regularly visited his neighbourhood mosque outside Kuala Lumpur, said the mosque’s imam, or spiritual leader.
The far more seasoned Zaharie joined MAS in 1981 and had logged 18,365 hours of flying time.
Malaysian media reports quoted colleagues calling Zaharie a “superb pilot”, who also served as an examiner, authorised by the Malaysian Civil Aviation Department, to conduct simulator tests for pilots.
The whole passenger manifest is likely to be re-examined.
If hijackers are suspected, then the glare of suspicion will fall again on two passengers who boarded with EU passports stolen in Thailand.
Interpol had identified the two men as Iranians: Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar, who used a stolen Italian passport, and Pouria Nourmohammadi, who used an Austrian one.
Interpol chief Ronald Noble said last Tuesday the men were thought to be illegal immigrants who had travelled from Doha to Kuala Lumpur in a round-about bid to reach Europe.
There has been no indication yet of any possible terrorist involvement.
London-based David Kaminski-Morrow, air transport editor for Flight International, warned of the danger of rushing to conclusions following Najib’s announcement.
“The new evidence is consistent with deliberate action, but it’s still only a small amount of data – certainly not a complete picture – and therefore it’s still premature to label the event formally as a hijack,” Kaminski-Morrow said.