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Missing Malaysian Flight MH370: Following in the trail of the lost plane


The name of the way point, or marker, IGARI, was spelled out in bold white capital letters, clear against the blackness of the radar screen. The route being taken by the plane was etched in green. The jet itself was a yellow cross.

When it reached the way point, 40 minutes or so after a steady climb out of Kuala Lumpur, the plane started to turn westwards. The turn was slow to start with, almost indiscernible. But then it cut more deeply, banking noticeably, with a turn of more than 90 degrees. Very soon the plane was pointing westwards, heading towards Penang and a way point called VAMPI. It would then change tack again, heading north-west to a station named GIVAL and after that disappearing.

Masking the plane’s position from the eyes of civilian aviation teams would have been as simple as turning a knob. “Just switch it to the left and the transponder is off,” said Captain Amin Shah.

This is the series of events believed to have been taken by missing Flight MH370 after it veered off route on its way to Beijing soon after it took off on the morning of 8 March. And, as The Independent discovered this week when it repeated the plane’s actions in a dizzying flight simulator, taking the plane off course might have been a moderately easy endeavour.

Mr Amin, the director of SimFlightKL, located at Kuala Lumpur’s domestic airport at Subang, said the routes taken by various flights were programmed into a plane’s autopilot and navigation system before takeoff. Changing the route could be achieved by tapping in some new coordinates. It would require a degree of skill and knowledge, and some practice. But it might not require vast flying experience.

In the days since the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 went missing, leaving just a digital spectre of its presence, the attention of investigators has sharply focused on the 53-year-old pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a veteran of 30 years' flying, and first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, aged just 27.

Police have said that along with the help of foreign agencies they are looking into the history and psychological background of all the passengers and crew, searching for a militant link, or someone with a flying history. They have recovered a flight simulator from the home of Mr Zaharie, a father of three, programmed with at least five runways, in India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Diego Garcia.

Officials have also revealed that they believe the final verbal contact with the plane involved the co-pilot, Mr Fariq, who was reportedly soon due to get married. That conversation happened at 1.19am as the plane approached IGARI and the traffic controllers warned the pilots that they were about to enter Vietnamese airspace on their way to China. “All right. Good night,” came the response. Officials are now said to be examining the tone of Mr Fariq’s voice. Was he sounding stressed?

Yet for all their efforts and suspicions, officials have come up with nothing. The families of the men insist they are innocent, and that they are victims themselves.

As it is, Capt Amin counts Mr Zaharie among his friends. He said he had known him since either 1997 or 1998, their friendship having grown from a mutual interest in flying remote-controlled model aircraft. He said Mr Zaharie was a “flying nut” and that he would sometimes bring his children with him when they went to try out their models. “He is a family man,” he said.

Mr Amin said he believed it was impossible Mr Zaharie could have seized control of the plane and taken it off course. He also said there was nothing unusual about him having a flight simulator at his home. “All the pilots do it. The copilots in particular have them because they are trying to get better,” he said

The comments of Mr Amin echo those of many within the flying community, who said they could not believe Mr Zaharie or Mr Fariq were responsible for what happened to the plane. Flight crew on board a recent Malaysian Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur said they believed MH370 had been hijacked – “but not by the pilots”.

Mr Amin’s colleague in the flight simulator, Arobi Rosli, said he also believed that someone else must have taken control of the plane.

“When it went missing we thought there must have been an accident. Then we heard there had been a turn-back so we thought there might have been engine failure,” said Mr Rosli, 28, who completed flying school six years ago. “But they have found nothing.”

Reports say that soon after MH370 veered west at IGARI, data from satellite systems showed its altitude plunged sharply. Officials are investigating the theory that whoever was in control of the jet flew intentionally low, engaging in “terrain masking” to try and avoid radar.

Yesterday’s simulated flight did the same. Mr Rosli tapped at the array of controls ahead of him and soon the altitude meter showed the plane was nosing down towards the ocean. Mr Amin turned off the lights to mimic the night sky that would have confronted whoever was in control of the plane when it flew off course eleven days ago. It was black, but for a few stars.

The plane continued to descend. Before long it was flying at just 5,000ft. The noise from the engines - barely noticeable before – increased sharply. But there was no turbulence.

Aviation experts have said that the Boeing 777 is a solid plane, easily able to fly for extended periods at a low altitude without structural problems. But they point out that the plane would have used up fuel much more thirstily, perhaps limiting the range by half. Any sudden manoeuvres would also cut into that supply. Flight MH370 was carrying enough for around seven-and-half-hours of normal flying.

The simulated flight continued westwards, heading to way point GIVAL, located around 200 miles north-west of the island of Penang. This was the final point at which MH370 was spotted on Malaysian military radar, just a blip on the screen at around 2.15am.

Officials have said they believe that at this point, the plane either headed north or south. The final “ping” from the back-up of its disconnected  satellite communication equipment was recorded almost seven hours later, at 8.11am.

The data collated by the London-based company Inmarsat suggests that at that point the plane was flying along one of two arcs – a northern corridor leading from Thailand to the Kazakhstan border, or a southern route over Indonesia and then out across the southern Indian ocean. Officials are searching along both and consider both equally important.

But what did Mr Amin think: which way did he think the plane had turned? “If they were going south, then why would they turn to to GIVAL?” he said. “Also, going north would offer more landing places.”