Investigation Into Missing Malaysian Jet Expands

The search for the Malaysian Airlines plane that went missing more than a week ago has expanded as officials still have little idea what happened to it.

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The case of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet has grown increasingly sinister and challenging. Over the weekend, Malaysian authorities confirmed someone on board diverted the Boeing 777, which had 239 people aboard. They also said the plane's possible flight path, after it disappeared, now stretches from Kazakhstan to the Southern Indian Ocean.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has more from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Officials say that the plane's data transmission systems sent its final signal at 1:07 Saturday morning, March 8. A dozen minutes later, a pilot signed off: All right, goodnight. Two minutes after that, the transponder, which broadcasts the aircraft's location, stopped working. Then the plane took a sharp turn west and headed toward the Strait of Malacca and beyond.

At a news conference Saturday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the conclusion, which many had come to earlier, was clear.

PRIME MINISTER NAJIB RAZAK: These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane.

LANGFITT: Just who and why, Malaysian officials aren't yet saying. Satellite data showed the plane continued to fly for more than six and a half hours after it dropped off civilian radar; and that the flight possible flight paths include a northern corridor stretching into Central Asia, and a southern one heading deep into the Indian Ocean.

At a Sunday news conference, Malaysia's acting transportation minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said the new information has sent the search in a different direction.

HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN: The search area has been significantly expanded, and the nature of the search has changed. From focusing mainly on shallow seas, we are now looking at large tracks of land crossing 11 countries as well as deep and remote oceans.

LANGFITT: Malaysia is asking countries across Central Asia for radar and satellite data. And investigators are refocusing on passengers, ground crew and the pilots. It's still not clear if they have a single suspect or are probing a conspiracy.

Again, the transportation minister, Hussein.

HUSSEIN: According to Malaysian Airlines, the pilot and co-pilot did not ask to fly together on MH370.

LANGFITT: Investigators removed an elaborate flight simulator from the house of one of the pilots, Zaharie Ahmad Shah. Shah, who is 53, has been described by colleagues as an aviation tech geek with nearly 18,000 hours of flight experience. Officials did not say exactly what they planned to do with the machine.

GREGORY WALDRON: I expect they are going to be trying to find out, you know, if there's any recordings of previous flights that he conducted on the simulator.

LANGFITT: Gregory Waldron is Asia managing editor of Flight Global, a leading source of aerospace and defense trade information. He thinks investigators will try to see if any of Shah's simulator flights match potential routes MH370 may have taken. Waldron says of the two routes, he thinks the one into the Indian Ocean seems more likely than the other, over Central Asia.

WALDRON: I mean, the corridor that they've given flies over some very closely monitored air space. You're taking about the Chinese-Indian border, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan. So there's countries up there, and there are territorial disputes. There are even wars in some of these countries, especially Afghanistan. And there would be radar surveillance, and you would have thought that they would have identified something.

LANGFITT: But Waldron says finding the plane in the Indian Ocean could be hugely difficult. The aircraft sent signals to satellites for hours, but they didn't provide location or altitude data. And the Indian Ocean is enormous, with an average depth of 2 miles.

WALDRON: This search is unprecedented. The areas are just enormous. There's a very good chance they'll never locate the aircraft.

LANGFITT: In the meantime, some of the families of the passengers - most of whom were Chinese - are grasping at anything for hope, including the highly unlikely possibility this was a successful hijacking and their loved ones are somewhere, still alive.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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