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.

Pilots Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, left, and Fariq Abdul Pilots Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, left, and Fariq Abdul
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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Specialist - Document Management

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A leading provider of document ...

Recruitment Genius: Legal Secretary

£17000 - £17800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to work ...

Recruitment Genius: Ad Ops Manager - Up to £55K + great benefits

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a digital speci...

The Green Recruitment Company: Operations Manager - Anaerobic Digestion / Biogas

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Operation...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent