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Flight 370: radio contact made after final ACARS transmission

Search for Flight 370 covers 25 countries and enormous area of water
Search for Flight 370 covers 25 countries and enormous area of waterPhoto by U.S. Navy/Getty Images

One of two data communication systems aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines jet was switched off around the time the co pilot logged a final verbal communication indicating no problems with the plane, according to Malaysian officials.

Malaysia’s defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, added the detail Sunday fueling speculation that the Boeing 777 jet’s chief pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, or his junior co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, radically altered their flight plan - possibly at the instruction of hijacker(s).

Just before the flight, Zaharie reportedly attended a trial in which Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – who has been harassed and jailed on successive charges of homosexuality and sodomy – was sentenced to jail for five years.

Sources say Captain Zaharie is a Muslim and political activist whom supports Mr Anwar. Some speculate that the court decision left him highly agitated.

Co-pilot Fariq is the son of a high-ranking official in the public works department of a Malaysian state and was a regular visitor to a local mosque outside Kuala Lumpur where he lives.

At a press conference Sunday, Mr. Hishammuddin - also acting minister of transportation was asked about the timing. “Yes, it was disabled before,” he said. Flight 370 had departed Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. local time on March 8 in route to Beijing before ground crews lost all contact with the plane.

The last transmission from that system came early in the flight, at 1:19 a.m. and the next transmission wasn't due until 1:37 a.m. The final communication is believed to be the voice of the co-pilot saying, "All right, good night." The plane's ACARS data transmitter was disabled at 1:07 a.m., moments before the last verbal transmission.

As of today, a massive multi-nation search for the missing passenger jet with 239 passenger and crew on board has expanded to an area that includes 25 countries and thousands of square miles of open sea.Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, acknowledged on Saturday that evidence collected from military radar and satellite data suggest the aircraft’s main communications devices were disabled and the jet was diverted from its intended route by its pilots, possibly following orders of hijacker(s).

According to the Malaysian officials, the plane was leaving Malaysian air traffic control space when the captain radioed a brief message described as a routine sign off in which he did not mention any problem s on board, including a malfunction of the aircraft’s ACARS system that automatically sends mechanical data to ground maintenance crews.The ACARS was shut off moments before the pilot’s last verbal transmission and the plane’s transponder, which sends tracking signals to air traffic controllers, was disabled at 1:21 a.m. - 12 minutes later.

The Boeing jet could have flown more than six hours after the pilot’s final contact, which means the expanded search for it includes Australia, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian states.A lack of information from Malaysian authorities has confounding the search operation and frustrating foreign governments involved in the search. Prior to Najib’s dramatic announcement about the likely course of the plane, most planes and ships were scouring the seas off Malaysia’s east coast which is in the opposite direction of the latest search coordinates.

“Malaysian officials are currently discussing with all partners how best to deploy assets along the two corridors,” the Malaysian ministry said in a written statement. “Both the northern and southern corridors are being treated with equal importance.”

The northern corridor is defined as an arc “touches southern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan in central Asia before running across a huge swath of western and southwestern China, and ending in northernmost Laos.” The aircraft would have had to fly over heavily militarized regions of China, India or Pakistan.

The southern corridor runs from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean over open sea in an area where islands are sparse. If Flight 370 diverted to this corridor it might have passed near the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, remote Australian islands populated by as few as 1,000 people with only a small airport that would not accommodate a Boeing 777 landing.

In the U.S., frustrated officials say the Malaysian report on Saturday did little to change their operations.

“It doesn’t mean anything; all it is is a theory,” one anonymous senior American official said. “Find the plane, find the black boxes and then we can figure out what happened. It has to be based on something, and until they have something more to go on it’s all just theories,” he added.

* Updated: Title in original article stated radio contact made 'before' ACARS final report should have read 'after'