Malaysia Airlines Flight: Computer Tampering Sent Plane Off Course, Report Says

Jonathan Vankin

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was sent hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles off its planned course not because one of the pilots — or some unknown person in the cockpit — grabbed the plane's steering mechanism and turned it the wrong way, but because an onboard computer was secretly reprogrammed, a report in The New York Times said Monday.

The Times based its reporting on "senior American officials," who told the paper that it would take just "seven or eight keystrokes" to alter the pre-programmed course set by the computer on board the Malaysian Airlines flight. That computer goes by the name "Flight Management System."

The job of the Flight Management System is to keep the plane on a course that has been programmed into its memory banks before a flight takes off. But if someone with expert knowledge of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 systems could get to that computer and punch in a new course, the plane would simply make the turns the computer tells it to make without the pilots, or a hijacker, needing to do anything further.

In fact, the officials told the Times, to reprogram the computer, a person would not even need specific knowledge of the Malaysia Airlines plane that has been missing since March 8. Only an expert knowledge of the Flight Management System computer would be required.

The officials in the Times story believe that only a qualified pilot would have such knowledge. It seems highly unlikely, they say, that a passenger could have reprogrammed the Flight Management System.

Their belief that the rerouting was accomplished by computer is based on the fact that, even as it flew off course, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continued to hit designated "waypoints" in the sky. Even an expert pilot flying by hand would have extreme difficulty hitting those waypoints, which are virtual markers that designate airline routes.

While search officials have concluded that the plane was deliberately diverted, they continue to investigate other possibilities for what could have gone wrong with the Malaysia Airlines flight.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's civil aviation director, said Tuesday that neither some sort of structural damage to the plane nor a failure of the on-board systems has been completely eliminated as the reason why the Malaysia Airlines flight vanished.

Another possibility came Monday from the former security chief for the United States Federal Aviation Administration Billie Vincent, who says he does not believe the Malaysian government's theory of a deliberate diversion, a theory shared by U.S. officials as well.

Vincent told Air Traffic Management Magazine that the most likely cause of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappearance was an on-board fire, caused by some sort of hazardous materials in the cargo hold.

In Vincent's scenario, a fire starting in the cargo hold would disable the plane's communications systems one after the other, as investigators say was the case. The fumes would have likely asphyxiated the plane's passengers. But a pilot unable to see due to smoke may have caused the plane to climb to 45,000 feet then drop down to 23,000 as has been reported.

He believes the crew of the Malaysia Airlines flight were able to control the fire well enough to set the plane on course back to Kuala Lumpur, but perished from smoke inhalation before making it there.