KUALA LUMPUR, March 18 — The “air turnback” made by Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was executed using the plane's navigational computer inside the cockpit, the New York Times reported.
Citing unnamed US law enforcement officials, the newspaper said the plane was not piloted manually as initially believed, adding to the mounting evidence that the person or persons behind the “deliberate action” to divert the plane from its Beijing-bound route was intimately familiar with the Boeing 777-200ER.
Malaysia on Saturday said it was now refocusing its investigations on the 12 crew and 227 passengers of the missing plane.
According to the US officials, the crucial piece of information was contained in the final transmission of the plane's Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) at 1.07am on March 8.
Previous information by Malaysian authorities that the ACARS was shut off prior to the plane's last broadcast of “All right, good night” by co-pilot Fariq Ab Hamid at 1.17am, had led to suspicion falling on the two aviators at the helm.
Yesterday, MAS cleared up confusion over when the ACARS aboard MH370 was switched off, saying it could have taken place any time between 1.07am and 1.37am, when it was due to make its next transmission but never did.
But the revelation from the US investigators that the plane's path was altered via the Flight Management System prior to the final ACARS transmission indicates that the plan to divert the plane may have been set in motion even before then.
The plane also threaded established navigational waypoints — Igari, Vampi, Gival and Igrex — that further suggest the plane was piloted by the computer.
In its report, the NYT said a plane flown using waypoints would have altered its bearings in a manner gentle enough to not alert those onboard to the change.
The new suggestion, however, pushes investigators away from the theory of pilot suicide.
With terrorism only a remote possibility and a hijack similarly unlikely given the absence of demands, the new discovery is likely to worsen the mystery of MH370.
The microscope has been on the two pilots, Fariq and the captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, since Malaysia concluded on Saturday the plane's disappearance was due to “deliberate action”.
Police searched the homes of both men the same day, taking a flight simulator Zaharie hand-built to mimic the cockpit of the 777-200ER.
Today, local daily Berita Harian cited unnamed local investigators as saying five practice runways in the Indian Ocean were contained in the simulator.
On Saturday, Malaysia confirmed that satellite data indicated that the plane could be in one of two corridors: a northern arc from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in central Asia, or a southern one from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.