Malaysian investigators are trawling through the backgrounds of the pilots, crew and ground staff who worked on a missing jetliner for clues as to why someone on board flew it perhaps thousands of kilometers off course, the country’s national police chief said.
Background checks of passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have drawn a blank, but not every country whose nationals were on board has responded to requests for information, Malaysian Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference yesterday.
No trace of the Boeing 777-200ER has been found since it vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board, but investigators believe it was diverted by someone who knew how to switch off its communications and tracking systems.
Malaysia has appealed for international help in the search for the plane across two corridors stretching from the shores of Caspian Sea to the far south of the Indian Ocean.
“The search area has been significantly expanded,” Malaysian Acting Minister of Transport Hishammuddin Hussein said.
Malaysian authorities believe that as the plane crossed the country’s northeast coast and flew across the Gulf of Thailand, someone on board shut off its communications systems and turned sharply to the west.
Electronic signals it continued to exchange periodically with satellites suggest it could have continued flying for nearly seven hours after flying out of range of Malaysian military radar off the country’s northwest coast, heading toward India.
On Saturday, police special branch officers searched the homes of the captain, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and first officer, 27-year-old Fariq Abdul Hamid, in middle-class suburbs of Kuala Lumpur close to the international airport.
An experienced pilot, Zaharie has been described by current and former coworkers as a flying enthusiast who spent his off days operating a life-sized flight simulator he had set up at home.
Earlier, a senior police official said the flight simulator programs were looked at closely, adding they appeared to be normal ones that allowed players to practice flying and landing in different conditions.
Police sources said they were looking at the personal, political and religious backgrounds of both pilots and the other crew members.
Khalid said ground support staff who might have worked on the plane were also being investigated.
A second senior police official said that investigators had found no links between Zaharie, a father of three grown-up children and a grandfather, and any militant group.
Postings on his Facebook page suggest the pilot was a politically active opponent of the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for the 57 years since independence.
A day before the plane vanished, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to five years in prison, in a ruling his supporters and international human rights groups say was politically influenced.
Asked if Zaharie’s background as an opposition supporter was being examined, the first senior police officer would say only: “We need to cover all our bases.”