Malaysia has acknowledged for the first time that one of the pilots of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had plotted a course on his home flight simulator to the southern Indian Ocean, where the missing jet is believed to have crashed.
Australian officials overseeing the search for the plane said last month that data recovered from Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s simulator included a flight path to the southern Indian Ocean.
Malaysian officials at the time refused to confirm the findings.
Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told local journalists on Thursday that the flight path was found on the simulator. However, he also cautioned that there were “thousands” of destinations on the simulator and no evidence that Capt Zaharie flew the plane in that area or deliberately crashed it.
A recording of the news conference was made available to the Associated Press on Friday.
New York Magazine reported last month that an FBI analysis of the device showed that Capt Zaharie had conducted a simulated flight to the southern Indian Ocean less than a month before the plane vanished along a similar route.
The magazine cited the discovery as strong evidence that the disappearance was a premeditated act of mass murder-suicide at the hands of the captain.
“Until today, this theory is still under investigation. There is no evidence to prove that Captain Zaharie flew the plane into the southern Indian Ocean,” Mr Liow said. “Yes, there is the simulator but the (route) was one of thousands to many parts of the world. We cannot just base on that to confirm (he did it).”
Mr Liow did not say when the Indian Ocean path was flown on the simulator. He stressed that international experts and Australian officials have agreed that the most likely scenario was “uncontrolled ditching” of the plane.
Australia’s Joint Agency Co-ordination Centre – which is overseeing the search for the plane off Australia’s west coast – has also said that evidence of the route did not prove that Capt Zaharie had planned to steer the plane off course and showed only “the possibility of planning” for such an event.
Malaysia’s national police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, has said investigations will not be conclusive until the black boxes – the cockpit voice recorder and a data recorder – are recovered. He did not rule out a pilot suicide.
Officials have been frustrated in their efforts to explain why the Boeing 777 carrying 239 people veered so far off course during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 2014.
Theories have ranged from a deliberate murder-suicide plot by one of the pilots, to a hijacking, to a mechanical catastrophe. Similarly, search crews have been unable to find the main wreckage of the plane despite a sweeping underwater hunt of a remote stretch of ocean off Australia’s west coast.
Last month, officials from Malaysia, Australia and China announced that the underwater search will be suspended once the current search area has been completely scoured.
Crews have fewer than 10,000 square kilometre (3,861 square miles) left to scan of the 120,000 sq km (46,332 sq mile) search area, and should finish their sweep of the region by the end of the year.