Co-pilot of MH370 made mid-air phone call: Report

KUALA LUMPUR - The co-pilot of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 reportedly made a call from his mobile phone as the plane was flying low near Penang the morning it went missing.

The New Straits Times (NST), quoting unnamed sources, said the call, which was traced to the mobile phone of First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, ended abruptly, but not before contact was established with a telecommunications sub-station in the state.

When asked by reporters on Saturday, Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein declined to comment on the NST report.

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The newspaper was unable to ascertain who the co-pilot was trying to call as its sources chose not to divulge details of the investigation. The links that police are trying to establish are also unclear, said the report.

NST said it learnt that investigators are poring over this discovery as they try to piece together what had happened moments before the Boeing 777-22ER jet went off the radar, some 320 km north-west of Penang on March 8.

It is understood that the aircraft with 239 people on board was flying at an altitude low enough for the nearest telecommunications tower to pick up his phone's signal.

"The telco's (telecommunications company's) tower established the call that he was trying to make. On why the call was cut off, it was likely because the aircraft was fast moving away from the tower and had not come under the coverage of the next one," the sources said.

It was also established that Mr Fariq's last communication through the WhatsApp Messenger application was about 11.30pm on March 7, just before he boarded the aircraft for his six-hour flight to Beijing.

The sources told NST that checks on his phone history showed that the last person he spoke to was "one of his regular contacts", a number that frequently appears on his outgoing phone logs.

This call was made no more than two hours before the flight took off at 12.41am from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

The newspaper also spoke to a different group of sources close to the investigations, who said that checks on Mr Fariq's phone showed that connection to the phone had been "detached" before the plane took off.

"This is usually the result of the phone being switched off. At one point, however, when the airplane was airborne, between waypoint Igari and the spot near Penang (just before it went missing from radar), the line was 'reattached'.

"A 'reattachment' does not necessarily mean that a call was made. It can also be the result of the phone being switched on again," the sources said.

Experts said it was possible for a mobile phone to be connected to a telecommunications tower at an altitude of 7,000 feet.

An NST report on March 16 quoted investigators as saying that the jetliner had dropped to as low as 5,000 feet after it made the turnback at waypoint Igari in the South China Sea before it crossed Peninsular Malaysia headed towards Penang.

Meanwhile, Mr Fariq's cousin Nursyafiqah Kamarudin, 18, told the NST on Monday that the co-pilot, who would have turned 28 on April 1, was very close to his mother.

"If Fariq could make one call before the plane disappeared, it would have been to her."

The team carrying out this probe is separate from the International Investigating Team (IIT), which comprises agencies with expertise in satellite communications and aircraft performance. This team had been working over the past weeks, refining data, including those extracted from radars and satellites, in narrowing down the search area, which has since been centred in the Indian Ocean.

While some details from the IIT's investigations have been released to appease family members' and the media's demand for information, police said they were not at liberty to divulge details of the probe for fear that it could jeopardise their investigation.

Last week, the New Sunday Times published a report that said investigators had sifted through hundreds of hours of closed-circuit television footage, not only from cameras in most corners of KLIA, but all the way back to a toll plaza 8.8km away, which most passengers would have had to pass through to reach KLIA. Videos were also taken from the stretch of road leading to the airport.

Their movements were traced by the CCTVs right up to the time they showed up at gate C1, in the West Zone of the airport's Satellite Building, where the plane was parked.

It was also learnt that while Mr Fariq and chief stewardess Goh Sock Lay, 45, communicated via the WhatsApp messenger application at 11.30pm, pilot Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, made his last contact through the application at 7.45pm, some five hours before flying off.

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