Data deleted from Malaysian pilot’s home flight simulator intensifies focus of probe

Australia’s prime minister said Thursday that objects related to a missing Malaysia Airlines passenger jet have been possibly spotted in the southern Indian Ocean as a U.S. Navy plane that can search under water was shifted to remote waters 1,800 miles west of that country.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the Australian Parliament in Canberra that the objects were spotted on satellite imagery, in what could be a potential break in the 13-day search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. An Australian air force surveillance plane has been diverted to that area in an attempt to locate the objects, the Associated Press reported.

Abbott said that “new and credible information has come to light” in relation to the search for the plane in the southern Indian Ocean and after specialist analysis of satellite imagery, “two possible objects related to the search have been identified.”

But the prime minister added: “The task of locating these objects will be extremely difficult and it may turn out they are not related to the search for MH370.”

Meanwhile the FBI stepped in to retrieve files deleted from a pilot’s flight simulator Wednesday, as the U.S. role expanded in the effort to find the plane.

The focus of a search that covers 2.24 million square miles of ocean turned to an empty expanse far off the Australian coast, based on a projection provided by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which dispatched a team to Kuala Lumpur 48 hours after the plane’s March 8 disappearance.

“The sheer size of the search area poses a huge challenge,” said John Young of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. He said it covered more than 372,000 square miles of the southern Indian Ocean and would take “at least a few weeks to search the area thoroughly.’’

President Obama, in his first comments on the disappearance of the plane, said the United States will continue to work in close cooperation with the Malaysian government. “We have put every resource that we have available at the disposal of the search process,” he told the Dallas-Fort Worth television station KDFW on Wednesday.

Malaysian investigators worked to recover data erased from a flight simulator that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, used in his home. A U.S. law enforcement official said the FBI had been asked to provide technical help in examining the flight simulator.

Malaysian authorities have emphasized that both Zaharie and the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, should be considered innocent unless proven otherwise. Police visits to their homes have caused suspicion that one or both of them might have had a hand in the plane’s disappearance.

Shortly after the simulator was taken by police from the family home, it was discovered that some material had been deleted.

Forensic experts want to recover that information to determine whether it has any relevance to the investigation. FBI specialists often can retrieve data from computers that has been damaged or erased.

New data has provided an arc of possible locations for Malaysian Flight MH370.

“The goal is to find any indication that the flight simulator had been used to reproduce flight conditions or circumstances that are now the subject of potential theories,” said Weysan Dunn, a retired senior FBI agent who has dealt with many sophisticated cyber-investigations.

People familiar with flight simulators said it was common practice to erase data.

The disclosure about deleted data underscores the delicate job facing Malaysian authorities, who have selectively disclosed details of their investigation to a public hungry for any hint of guilt or innocence.

Frustration over the trickle of information boiled over Wednesday when relatives of Chinese passengers on the missing plane burst into the news media auditorium in the Malaysian capital, wailing with grief and anger, and unfurled a banner demanding that the government “tell the truth.”

Investigators have not publicly suggested that either Zaharie or Fariq had a motive or mind-set to sabotage a plane with
227 passengers and 12 crew members aboard. But they have said that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was almost surely diverted by somebody with aviation experience.

Scrutiny has fallen on Zaharie and Fariq amid reports that the plane’s westward turn from Beijing, the intended destination, was programmed into the flight computer even while other communications systems remained working and before the co-
pilot’s last radio contact with the ground.

The change in direction was entered into the system before the final burst of automatic data sent from the plane via satellite at 1:07 a.m. and several minutes before Fariq said “good night” to Malaysian air-traffic control. Two minutes after that, the plane’s transponder went dark and the airliner disappeared from civilian radar.

The sequence of events seemed to indicate that the westward turn was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, but some experts said that path could have been pre-
programmed as an alternative in case of emergency.

Determining what happened in the plane’s cockpit in the 40 minutes between its takeoff and disappearance is crucial for investigators as they try to narrow a continent-sized search field and ease the grief of despondent relatives.

It’s possible that Zaharie or Fariq, separately or together, cut off the plane’s multiple communications systems and steered it away from Beijing. It’s also possible that one or both were acting under duress. Officials in Malaysia also have not ruled out mechanical failure, although they say it’s unlikely.

The hunt for the missing Boeing 777 now involves 26 countries looking across a vast section of the Indian Ocean and huge tracts of central and southeastern Asia. That search area is split into curving northern and southern corridors — the best guess where the plane might have ended up.

Investigators now believe that the missing plane most likely flew far into the southern corridor, over the remote waters of the Indian Ocean west of Australia, the Reuters news agency reported Wednesday, citing a source close to the investigation.

The view is based on the lack of any evidence from countries along the northern corridor that the plane crossed their airspace and the failure to find any trace of wreckage in searches in the northern part of the southern corridor.

The Navy sent a P-8 Poseidon aircraft that had been searching off India in the Bay of Bengal to aid in the effort west of Australia. The plane can stay aloft for up to nine hours and can drop and monitor buoys that listen for sounds beneath the ocean surface. Even if the plane crashed into the sea, its emergency beacon will send audible signals for about a month before the battery dies.

The protracted and painfully inconclusive investigation has taken its toll on the families of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.

Chaos ensued in the Malaysian media center as the passengers’ relatives were surrounded by dozens of television camera operators, photographers and correspondents jostling for position in a narrow space at the back of the hall. A Malaysian government official appealed in vain for the relatives to leave before they were finally bundled out the door by police in an unseemly melee.

One woman collapsed to the floor and had to be virtually carried out as she cried, “Where are they? Where are they?”

After the family members were removed, only their banner was left behind on the floor. A government spokesman ordered it to be rolled up, saying it was not “appropriate.”

More than 150 Chinese were listed among the passengers aboard the missing plane. Some relatives, angry almost from the outset with the scant information, have been flown to Malaysia to wait for news, while most have elected to stay behind in China.

Many grieving families in Beijing are staying at the Lido Hotel, their lives spent watching television, talking to counselors and waiting for updates from Malaysian officials. Daily sessions with representatives from Malaysia Airlines often turn into shouting matches during which the airline officials explain again that they have no information.

The spirits of some relatives had perked up a bit last weekend when Malaysia seemed to raise the possibility of a hijacking, a scenario that would increase the odds of the passengers’ survival.

“That night, many finally got out for once and got a good night’s sleep,” said Lu Kaisheng, a volunteer from Shenzhen, who is part of group providing counseling for families at the hotel. “But since then, you can feel anger start to rise again.”

Halsey reported from Washington. Tim Craig in Islamabad, Pakistan; Annie Gowen in New Delhi; William Wan in Beijing; and Ernesto Londoño, Adam Goldman, Scott Higham and David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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