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Flight MH370: New timeline casts doubt on pilot deception theory

WATCH ABOVE: Why the investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is focusing closely on the pilot and co-pilot. 

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Officials revealed a new timeline Monday suggesting the final voice transmission from the cockpit of the missing Malaysian plane may have occurred before any of its communications systems were disabled, adding more uncertainty about who aboard might have been to blame.

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New timeline casts doubt on theory of pilots’ deception

Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said an initial investigation indicated that the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, spoke the fight’s last words — “All right, good night” — to ground controllers.

Malaysian officials said earlier that those words came after one of the jetliner’s data communications systems — the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System — had been switched off, suggesting the voice from the cockpit may have been trying to deceive ground controllers.

READ MORE: Flight MH370: What we know about the missing pilots of Malaysia Airlines jet

However, Ahmad said that while the last data transmission from ACARS — which gives plane performance and maintenance information — came before that, it was still unclear at what point the system was switched off, making any implications of the timing murkier.

The new information opened the possibility that both ACARS and the plane’s transponders, which make the plane visible to civilian air traffic controllers, were turned off at about the same time. It also suggests that the message delivered from the cockpit could have preceded any of the severed communications.

READ MORE: Flight MH370: What we know about the missing pilots of Malaysia Airlines jet

Turning off a transponder is easy and, in rare instances, there may be good reason to do so in flight – for example, if it were reporting incorrect data.

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Malaysian police confiscated a flight simulator from the pilot’s home on Saturday and also visited the home of the co-pilot in what Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar initially said was the first police visits to those homes. However, the government issued a statement Monday contradicting that account by saying police first visited the pilots’ homes as early as March 9, the day after the flight.

VIDEO: Missing Malaysia airplane investigation focuses on the pilots

Plane ‘purposely diverted from its flight path’

Malaysian authorities say the jet carrying 239 people was intentionally diverted from its flight path during an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8. Suspicion has fallen on the pilots because of their aviation experience, although Malaysian officials have said they are seeking background checks on everyone aboard the flight.

Investigators haven’t ruled out hijacking, sabotage, pilot suicide or mass murder, and they are checking the backgrounds of all 227 passengers and 12 crew members, as well as the ground crew, to see if links to terrorists, personal problems or psychological issues could be factors.

However, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference Monday that finding the plane was still the main focus, and he did not rule out finding it intact.

“The fact that there was no distress signal, no ransom notes, no parties claiming responsibility, there is always hope,” Hishammuddin said.

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French investigators arriving in Kuala Lumpur to lend expertise from the two-year search for an Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 said they were able to rely on distress signals. But that vital tool is missing in the Malaysia Airlines mystery because flight 370’s communications were deliberately severed ahead of its disappearance more than a week ago, investigators say.

“It’s very different from the Air France case. The Malaysian situation is much more difficult,” said Jean Paul Troadec, a special adviser to France’s aviation accident investigation bureau.

Malaysia seeks helps from 26 countries

Malaysia’s government in the meantime sent out diplomatic cables to all countries in the search area, seeking their help with the search, as well as to ask for any radar data that might help narrow the task. Some 26 countries are involved in the search, which initially focused on seas on either side of peninsular Malaysia, in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.

READ MORE: A look at the 26 nations involved in search for missing Malaysia Airlines jet

Over the weekend, however, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that investigators determined that a satellite picked up a faint signal from the aircraft about 7 1/2 hours after takeoff. The signal indicated that the plane would have been somewhere on a vast arc stretching from Kazakhstan down to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

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VIDEO: U.S. Navy investigators expand search of Indian ocean for missing Malaysian airplane

Australia leads search efforts

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament that he agreed to take the lead scouring the southern Indian Ocean for the “ill-fated aircraft” during a conversation Monday with Malaysia’s leader.

“Australia will do its duty in this matter,” Abbott told parliament. “We will do our duty to the families of the 230 people on that aircraft who are still absolutely devastated by their absence, and who are still profoundly, profoundly saddened by this as yet unfathomed mystery.”

Australia already has had two AP-3C Orion aircraft involved in the search, one of them looking north and west of the remote Cocos Islands. The southern Indian Ocean is the world’s third-deepest and one of the most remote stretches of water in the world, with little radar coverage.

Search area expands

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced Monday that searches in both the northern and southern stretches of the arc had begun, with countries from Australia up to Kazakhstan joining the hunt.

WATCH: Malaysian officials talk about the new phase of the search for Flight MH370

Had the plane gone northwest to Central Asia, it would have crossed over countries with busy airspace, and some experts believe the person in control of the aircraft would more likely have chosen to go south. However, authorities are not ruling out the northern corridor and are eager for radar data that might confirm or rule out that path.

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The northern search corridor crosses through countries including China, India and Pakistan – all of which have indicated they have seen no sign of the plane so far.

An official with the Chinese civil aviation authority said the missing plane did not enter Chinese airspace, but the Chinese Defence Ministry and Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to questions on radar information.

Indonesian officials have said the plane did not cross their territory, based on radar data. Air force spokesman Rear Mar. Hadi Tjahjanto said Monday his country’s search efforts were focusing on waters west of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean.

Searchers relying on a type of satellite data never used before to find missing plane

Finding a missing Malaysia Airlines plane may hinge on whether searchers can narrow down where they need to look using satellite data that is inexact and has never been used for that purpose before, search and rescue experts say.

Based on the hourly connections with the plane, described by a U.S. official as a “handshake,” the satellite knows at what angle to tilt its antenna to be ready to receive a message from the plane should one be sent. Using that antenna angle, along with radar data, investigators have been able to draw two vast arcs, or “corridors” – a northern one from northern Thailand through to the border of the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and a southern one from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean. The plane is believed to be somewhere along those arcs.

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Air crash investigators have never used this kind of satellite data before to try to find a missing plane, but after pursing other leads it’s the best clue left.