A senior Malaysian government official has revealed that the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) had scrambled search aircraft at 8am on the morning of March 8, soon after Malaysia Airlines had reported that flight MH370 was missing.
In a surprising new development, CNN reported today that it was informed by the official that the RMAF search aircraft were scrambled well before authorities had corroborated data indicating that the missing commercial aircraft had turned back westward from its last-known location over the South China Sea.
A source involved in the investigation into the missing MAS plane has confirmed this latest information, CNN reported.
According to CNN, the source also told them that RMAF did not inform the Department of Civil Aviation nor anyone in the search and rescue operations team until March 11, three days after the aircraft disappeared.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 left the Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12.41am on March 8, and was en route to Beijing when it lost contact with Malaysian air traffic control at about 1.20am, while over the South China Sea.
The plane, with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board, was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6.30am the same day.
It was later confirmed by Malaysian military that its radar had detected the plane making a turn-back and then crossed over the peninsula heading to the Strait of Malacca before moving on to the Indian Ocean.
The plane had, however, disappeared from military radar for about 120 nautical miles after it crossed back over the peninsula, the source told CNN.
Investigators say that the available data points to this being caused by the plane most likely dropping in altitude to between 4,000 and 5,000 feet.
There were contradicting views from aviation experts on the reason for the sudden drop in altitude.
"The dip could have been programmed into the computers controlling the plane as an emergency manoeuvre," aviation expert David Soucie told CNN.
However, CNN aviation analyst and former National Transportation Safety Board managing director Peter Goelz said: "The real issue here is it looks, more and more, like somebody in the cockpit was directing this plane and directing it away from land. And it looks as though they were doing it to avoid any kind of detection."
Former US Department of Transportation inspector general Mary Schiavo believes the reported dip could have occurred in response to a loss of pressure, to reach a level where pressurisation was not needed and those aboard the plane would have been able to breathe without oxygen, CNN reported.
She also said that it could be as a result of the plane wanting to get out of the way of commercial traffic, which typically flies at higher altitudes.
According to CNN, that would have been necessary had the plane's transponder been turned off and it lost communications.
"If you don't have any communications, you need to get out of the way of other traffic," Schiavo said, adding that most radar can track planes at altitudes below 4,000 feet, so the plane's sudden drop in altitude makes it unlikely that it was an attempt to hide the plane from detection.
The source also revealed that investigators have confirmed that MH370's pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was the last person to speak to air traffic controllers with the words "Good night Malaysian three-seven-zero".
According to CNN, the Malaysian source told them that there was nothing unusual about the voice and there was no indication of stress. Confirmation of the voice belonging to Zaharie came after police played the recording to five other Malaysia Airlines pilots who knew the pilot and co-pilot, first Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid.
"There were no third-party voices," the source told CNN. – April 10, 2014.