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Computer sent missing Malaysian jet off flight path

By Matthew L. Wald & Michael S. Schmidt

New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 07:13 p.m. HST, Mar 17, 2014

WASHINGTON » The first turn to the west that diverted the missing Malaysia Airlines plane from its planned flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was carried out through a computer system that was most likely programmed by someone in the plane's cockpit who was knowledgeable about airplane systems, according to senior U.S. officials.

Instead of manually operating the plane's controls, whoever altered Flight 370's path typed seven or eight keystrokes into a computer on a knee-high pedestal between the captain and the first officer, according to officials. The Flight Management System, as the computer is known, directs the plane from point to point specified in the flight plan submitted before each flight. It is not clear whether the plane's path was reprogrammed before or after it took off.

The fact that the turn away from Beijing was programmed into the computer has reinforced the belief of investigators — first voiced by Malaysian officials — that the plane was deliberately diverted and that foul play was involved. It has also increased their focus on the plane's captain and first officer.

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia told reporters Saturday that his government believed the plane had been diverted, because its transponder and other communications devices had been manually turned off several minutes apart. U.S. officials were told of the new information over the weekend.

But Malaysian authorities on Monday reversed themselves on the sequence of events they believe took place on the plane in the crucial minutes before ground controllers lost contact with it early March 8. They said it was the plane's first officer — the co-pilot — who was the last person in the cockpit to speak to ground control. And they withdrew their assertion that another automated system on the plane called Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, had been disabled when the co-pilot spoke.

Flight 370's Flight Management System reported its status to ACARS, which in turn transmitted information back to a maintenance base, according to a U.S. official. This shows that the reprogramming happened before ACARS stopped working. ACARS ceased to function about the same time oral radio contact was lost and the airplane's transponder also stopped, fueling suspicions that foul play was involved in the plane's disappearance.

Investigators are scrutinizing radar tapes from when the plane first departed Kuala Lumpur because they believe the tapes would show that after the plane first changed its course, it passed through several pre-established "waypoints," which are like virtual mile markers in the sky. That would suggest that the plane was under control of a knowledgeable pilot, because passing through those points without using the computer would have been unlikely.

According to investigators, it appears that a waypoint was added to the planned route. Pilots do that in the ordinary course of flying if air traffic controllers tell them to take a different route, to avoid weather or traffic. But in this case, the waypoint was far off the path to Beijing.

Whoever changed the plane's course would have had to be familiar with Boeing aircraft, though not necessarily the 777 — the type of plane that disappeared. U.S. officials and aviation experts said it was far-fetched to believe that a passenger could have reprogrammed the Flight Management System.

Normal procedure is to key in a five-letter code — gibberish to non-aviators — that is the name of a waypoint. A normal flight plan consists of a series of such waypoints, ending in the destination airport. For an ordinary flight, waypoints can be entered manually or uploaded into the FMS by the airline.

One of the pilots keys in a waypoint on a separate screen known as a scratchpad, and after confirming that it has no typographical errors, pushes another button to move it into the sequence in the flight plan. Normal practice is to orally confirm the waypoint with the other pilot, then push another button to instruct the airplane to go there. With the change in course, the plane would bank at a comfortable angle, around 20 degrees, and make the turn. Passengers would not feel anything unusual.

ABC News reported Sunday that the programmed turn had led investigators to believe that it was being controlled by the pilot or hijackers.

One U.S. safety expert, John Cox, a former airline union safety official, said someone taking such pains to divert the plane does not fit the pattern of past cases when pilots intentionally crashed and killed everyone on board.

"There's an inconsistency in what we've seen historically," he said, comparing the disappearance of Flight 370 with two murder-suicides, of an Egyptair flight off Nantucket Island in 1999 and a SilkAir jet in Indonesia in 1997. In those crashes, he said, the pilot involved simply pushed the nose of the plane down and flew into the water.

The authorities searched the homes of the pilots in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, seizing a flight simulator that one of them had in his home.

In an effort to determine whether the pilot had practiced taking down the plane, the authorities have reassembled the simulator for experts to examine. U.S. investigators would like access to the flight simulator and any other electronic information seized from the pilots, but as of Monday night they had not been given access to those materials.

Meanwhile, as the search for the missing Boeing 777 jet stretched into a 10th day, two of the nations helping in the hunt, Australia and Indonesia, agreed to divide between them a vast area of the southeastern Indian Ocean, with Indonesia focusing on equatorial waters and Australia beginning to search farther south for traces of the aircraft. To the north, China and Kazakhstan checked their radar records and tried to figure out whether the jet could have landed somewhere on their soil.

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mitt_grund wrote:
If the guilty party, be it the pilot, co-pilot or hijacker, worshipped a certain deceased leader named Osama bin Laden, and wished to sacrifice 154 hated souls as servants to the man in a Muslim heaven, the location he may have been heading to may have been the North Arabian Sea, where the US Navy buried the man at sea. Like some people see Snowden as a hero, one or both pilots may have seen bin Laden as a quixotic Muslim Robin Hood.

In the March 11, 2014 issue of the Wall Street Journal, it reported that "...[a] total flight time of five hours could put the flight's final destination at the Indian Ocean, the border of Pakistan or EVEN THE ARABIAN SEA...". If the US Navy saw the Arabian Sea as a possible site to bury bin Laden's body unobserved, wouldn't it follow that a person bent on vengeance for the deed would have felt it poetic justice? The choice of flight was one of happenstance when the perpetrator found that MH370 would have on board 150-plus PRC Chinese. Fortunately for US citizens. there was no similar US tour group of that size as the perpetrator may have chosen that flight instead. End result -- the families of 150-plus Chinese who will never know where the final resting place of their family members is, and like the Muslims who worshipped bin Laden, revere only a memory. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Isn't that how Sharia law works? At this point in time, brother Muslims, the Uyghur are accelerating their terrorism against the Chinese population - from Tiananmen Square, to a heavily used train station in China - in a bid for independence of Xinjiang Province from the PRC. Has anyone checked the Arabian Sea yet?

on March 17,2014 | 06:43PM
Grimbold wrote:
Anyway, it could be an Islam thing again. With all this I would feel safer being a passenger in an airplane, knowing no radical Muslim is allowed on the controls or in the plane. EL AL comes to mind . They have the best screening process. I wished they would become a large international airline.
on March 17,2014 | 07:38PM
2Lolo wrote:
Oh God. You should know the entire Bin Laden assassination in April 30th 2011 was a giant hoax. Bin Laden died on Dec13, 2001 after years of faithful service to the CIA under the pseudo name Tim Osmon. OMG, that was THE one thing good Osama every supposedly achieved as POTUS.
on March 17,2014 | 09:30PM
catii wrote:
At 45,000 feet, the plane could fly considerably further than it could at lower altitude (less air resistance), but the Arabian Sea is too much of a stretch. The plane could easily have been reprogrammed in less than a minute, or the plane could be taken off auto-pilot with the flip of two switches, & manually flown after that. I still see the North Koreans offering each pilot $50 million to bring them an intact 777. The plane can easily be reprogrammed so that the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponder corresponded to a known flight, & the plane then purposely crashed into almost anything in the U.S. Pentagon? White House?
on March 17,2014 | 06:52PM
scuddrunner wrote:
The 777 can't fly at 45,000 feet. The service ceiling is 43,100 feet. Good luck getting into US airspace without the right paperwork. You must have, Traveler manifest information for each person on board, notice of arrival information and departure information must be approved before an airplane enters US airspace. You try flying into US airspace you will have a couple of F-15's on you wingtips. I think a 777 that's comes out of "nowhere" would raise concern especially when it's a Malaysian 777.
on March 17,2014 | 07:58PM
hornswoggler wrote:
IFF? on a T7? lol.
on March 17,2014 | 09:22PM
sayer wrote:
How disturbing...in some ways I suppose it's a surprise something like this hasn't happened sooner. These guys are smart and won't stop until they achieve some destruction. I think the plane is landed somewhere. Too much thought went into the course for them to just run out of gas or ditch the plane in the ocean.
on March 17,2014 | 07:28PM
Hawaii5OhOh wrote:
The U.S. should look for the plane on Grande Comore Island (part of the Comoros Islands) that is northwest of Madagascar. This is an island that can land a big jet, and is a very Muslim friendly place. A former Al Qaeda leader (deceased) of east Africa came from the Comoros Islands, so if Al Qaeda is involved I would look there. However, by now, the plane has been repainted, or has even left the island. If the plane is still there, it can fuel up and has the range to fly over Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea at cruising height, then level off at wave height to evade radar over the Red Sea, and hit a target in Israel.
on March 17,2014 | 07:57PM
2Lolo wrote:
Know who/what Al Qaeda is. It is the CIA! Another US False Flag.
on March 17,2014 | 09:33PM
hikine wrote:
It's surprising how the Malaysian government jumps the gun to suppositions and conclusions then retract their stories afterwards. In fact they don't know what the heck happened to the plane! They give very graphic details on how someone 'could' change the flight path like it was the given truth. First of all the cockpit is locked during the flight so no one can come in and usually the flight attendants are in front of the cockpit door before the pilot/copilot/navigator goes out to relieve themselves to block any intruders. Malaysian Airlines should hand over their repair manifest of the plane and have it reviewed with a fine tooth comb.
on March 18,2014 | 01:22AM
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