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Monday, March 17, 2014

Did Flight 370 Pilots Deceive Ground Control?

Malaysia's Minister of Defence and Acting Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein shows maps during a press conference at a hotel near Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on March 17, 2013. An investigation into the pilots of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 intensified on March 17 after officials confirmed that the last words spoken from the cockpit came after a key signalling system was manually disabled. (Photo credit should read Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Malaysia’s Minister of Defense and Acting Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, shows maps during a press conference today. An investigation into the pilots of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has intensified after officials confirmed the last words spoken from the cockpit came after a key signalling system was manually disabled. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Malaysian officials say the search for missing Flight 370 has widened from Australia to Kazakstan, now that they believe the jet carrying 239 people was purposefully diverted from its intended flight path when it disappeared more than one week ago.

Malaysian Airline officials confirmed today that they believe the last words from the cockpit, “All right, good night,” were spoken by the co-pilot, deepening suspicions that someone on board the plane was deceiving ground control.

The politics of the pilot have also come into question, after reports he supported the pro-democracy opposition in Malaysia. Aviation industry reporter Andy Pasztor,who has been covering the story for The Wall Street Journal, joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the latest developments.

Guest

  • Andy Pasztor, longtime airline industry reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, today the Crimean Parliament filed papers to join Russia after yesterday's vote. We'll speak to a reporter who says secessionist fever is spreading to other parts of eastern Ukraine.

CHAKRABARTI: But first, still no trace of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, more than one week after it disappeared. It's become clear that someone onboard intentionally diverted the jet from its flight path. Crews are now searching for the jet on land and sea, from Kazakhstan to Australia, after Malaysian officials confirmed Saturday that the plane kept flying for hours after its tracking system had been turned off.

Today, Malaysian Airline officials confirmed that the last words from the cockpit of Flight 370 - an all right, good night - were spoken by co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid. But they backtracked on a statement yesterday that those words were spoken after the plane's data communications had been switched off. So, a lot to dig into, and here to help us is Andy Pasztor, Wall Street Journal aviation industry reporter.

Andy, first of all, bring us up to speed and just take us back. Where exactly are we in this massive investigation?

ANDY PASZTOR: Well, that's unfortunately not a pretty picture. Ten days after the crash, we are really not very far down the road, I would say, in trying to get answers, either about what happened, and certainly much further than that, about why it happened. The big - the 500-pound gorilla in the room is that there is no wreckage. There is no debris, and as one former NTSB member told me, this is like - this is akin to investigating a murder without a corpse.

So unless they find something in the ocean or on land, it's going to be extremely difficult to come up with answers. The search area is gigantic, hundreds of thousands of square miles, by some estimates maybe half of the continental land mass of the U.S., maybe larger. So that gives you a sense of the challenge they have in front of them.

And even if we find a location for the wreckage in the water, the heavier pieces will have settled to the bottom, very, very deep in some places, 12,000 feet in some places. The lighter pieces will be moved by the currents. So the longer that we are looking and don't find anything, the less likely it is that we'll be able to find everything.

So we're really in - we're somewhat closer. We're a little bit closer. We have some sense that the aircraft continued to fly. But most of the big questions really are unanswered at this point.

CHAKRABARTI: So many big questions, too. And before we get into some of them, let me just ask you, and forgive me if this sounds gauche, but, I mean, we've got China, the United States, you know, major world powers here with very sophisticated spy satellites flying right over this part of the world. Is it not possible at all that there are some satellite images somewhere that show us more than what we know now, but there's just an information-sharing program, because these agencies don't really want to say what they know?

PASZTOR: Well, that's certainly possible, and there's long been a discussion from the beginning of this incident or crash or hijacking that there's a lack of willingness to share, and that many of the countries don't want to show how much firepower they have or surveillance power they have in the sky.

But it's extremely difficult to find wreckage underneath the ocean, underneath the surface of the water, with satellites. Basically, it's impossible. So what investigators are betting on is that some of those surveillance satellites may have seen the aircraft in some way, or if there was an explosion, or they may have seen the signature, the heat signature of the explosion.

But we haven't - there's no indication that that's the case yet. But the surveillance satellites may be really sophisticated, and on land, they can spot a big plane. There's no doubt about that. But once it's in the water, then you're getting into a whole different kind of, you know, technology required to find it.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. So we talked - we mentioned co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, and there's also now - it looks as if the politics of the flight's pilot are coming into sharper focus. I mean, there's been a photograph of Zaharie Ahmad Shah wearing a T-shirt with the slogan: democracy is dead. That surfaced yesterday, and - as did postings that he was a supporter of Malaysia's opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was ordered back to jail just hours before Flight 370 disappeared. Do we know anything more about the crew?

PASZTOR: Well, so this is probably making the heads of your listeners just twirl like crazy. I mean, the number of conspiracy theories and the number of theories about what happened and who did what and whether the pilots were involved is just astounding. And that is all because there aren't any really verified facts, very few coming out.

And that's really what I was referring to in the beginning. I don't think that the criminal investigation has focused on a clear path, and there don't seem to be any clear-cut, immediate, very obvious signs that these pilots or anyone else onboard had terrorist ties or had some really questionable background.

Now, that doesn't mean that they don't. It doesn't mean that that won't come out. But from the first blush, in the first, you know, week or 10 days, it isn't clear to me - and I think to many people - that we really are on a clear path and have identified, you know, where we are going.

YOUNG: And in just a couple seconds, Andy, if you could, is it true that investigators basically only have 30 days to find that black box on the airplane, because after that, it stops pinging?

PASZTOR: It stops pinging, but there have been - black boxes have been found before after the pingers stopped, and an Air France - on an Air France wide-body jet that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009, it took them more than two years to find it. And certainly, the pinger wasn't working, but they still found it.

So it's easier with the beacon, as they call it, operating, but it's not essential.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Andy Pasztor covers the aviation industry for The Wall Street Journal. Andy, thank you so much.

PASZTOR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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