Investigators searched the home of the pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet Saturday as the probe focused on possible sabotage.
Officials now believe someone on board deliberately shut off its communications and tracking systems, turned the plane around, and flew for nearly seven hours after it vanished from radar, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday.
“These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Razak said.
A Malaysian official, who was not named because he was not authorized to brief the press, went further, telling The Associated Press that hijacking was no longer a theory. “
“It is conclusive,” the official said.
The move on the pilot’s home came in after analysis of data indicating the plane made erratic changes in altitude and course — and that manual changes attempted to mask the jet’s location.
“Increasingly, it seems to be heading into the criminal arena,” Richard Healing, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, told the Wall Street Journal Friday.
The latest bits of information from the probe “indicate the emphasis is on determining if a hijacker or crew member diverted the plane,” he said.
A U.S. official told the Associated Press investigators are now examining whether the baffling disappearance may have been ‘‘an act of piracy.’’
The New York Times reported radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military show Flight 370 — which took off from Kuala Lumpur last Saturday with 279 people aboard — climbed to 45,000 feet soon after it disappeared from civilian radar, then made a sharp turn to the west.
The radar track showed the plane then dropping to just 23,000 feet as it approached the island of Penang, one of the country’s largest.
Military radar last recorded the plane flying at 29,500 feet some 200 miles northwest of Penang and headed toward India’s Andaman Islands, the Times reported.
An unidentified Malaysian official told The Associated Press only a skilled aviator could navigate the plane the way it was flown after its last confirmed location over the South China Sea.
An Asia-based Boeing pilot told the Times flying above the plane’s service limit of 43,100 feet, along with a depressurized cabin, could have knocked out passengers and crew — and could have been a deliberate maneuver by a pilot or hijacker.
The Journal reported investigators suspect two systems were shut off after the Beijing-bound plane took off: First, the plane’s transponders stopped functioning about an hour into the flight, making it difficult for air-traffic controllers to track the craft on radar.
Then, a second system sent a routine aircraft-monitoring message to a satellite indicating someone made a manual change in the plane’s heading that turned it sharply to the west, The Journal said.
The plane is now also believed to have continued flying for more than four hours after diverting its course — based on automated “pings” sent by onboard systems that try to connect with satellites.
One of the most chilling findings came from investigators examining data transmitted from the plane’s Rolls-Royce engines, showing the aircraft descending 40,000 feet in the space of a minute, the Times reported.
Investigators don’t believe it.
“A lot of stock cannot be put in the altitude data” sent from the engines, the Times quoted one unnamed official saying. “A lot of this doesn’t make sense.”
Aviation lecturer Cengiz Turkoglu of City University London said dramatic changes in altitude can happen because of a deliberate act in the cockpit, but that “it is extremely difficult for an aircraft to physically, however heavy it might be, to free fall,” the Times reported.
Initial fears, later discounted, were that terrorists might have brought the plane down after it disappeared.
Investigators also considered, but dismissed, the possibility that hijackers landed the plane somewhere for later use in a terrorist attack, the Times reported.
But one official told the Times that current information “leads them to believe that it either ran out of fuel or crashed right before it ran out of fuel.”
Meanwhile, CNN reported a classified analysis by the United States and Malaysian governments calculates the flight likely crashed into the Indian Ocean on one of two possible flight paths.
In one flight path scenario, the plane went down in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of India; another scenario has the plane traveling southeast and crashing into the Indian Ocean.
Still another theory being considered has the plane coming down in the remote Andaman Islands.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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By Cathy Burke