The missing Malaysia Airlines jet's abrupt U-turn was programmed into the on-board computer well before the co-pilot calmly signed off with air traffic controllers, sources tell NBC News.
The change in direction was made at least 12 minutes before co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid said "All right, good night," to controllers on the ground, the sources said.
The revelation further indicates that the aircraft's mysterious turnaround was planned and executed in the cockpit before controllers lost contact with Flight 370. But it doesn't necessarily indicate an ulterior motive.
"Some pilots program an alternate flight plan in the event of an emergency," cautioned Greg Feith, a former National Transportation Safety Board crash investigator and NBC News analyst.
"We don't know if this was an alternate plan to go back to Kuala Lumpur or if this was to take the plane from some place other than Beijing," the doomed flight's intended destination, Feith said.
Malaysian military radar last detected Flight 370 in the northern mouth of the Strait of Malacca, south of Phuket Island, Thailand, and west of the Malaysian peninsula — hundreds of miles off course.
Authorities said for the first time Saturday that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 veered sharply off its flight plan because of “deliberate action by someone on the plane.”
The course of the flight was changed by entering navigational instructions into the Flight Management System (FMS), the cockpit computer that directs the plane along a flight plan chosen by pilots.
Information from the FMS is among the data transmitted by the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) which sends information back to the airline’s maintenance base.
That system later stopped working. It is not clear whether it shut off before or after Flight 370’s last verbal contact with the ground, Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters Monday.
Sources tell NBC News that whoever turned the plane around programmed the FMS and knew exactly what they were doing.
"This would be a very elaborate scheme," said Ross Aimer, a retired United Airlines pilot who few the Boeing 777. They would've needed "very, very extensive training to pull this off," he added.
Meanwhile, authorities continued to scour for the vanished aircraft.
The search area has grown to a massive 2.24 million square nautical miles, Malaysian officials said Tuesday. It has been divided into a 14-section grid, with Australia, China, Indonesia and Kazakhstan spearheading efforts in those areas to which they are closest.
First published March 18 2014, 3:22 PM
Tom Costello is an NBC News correspondent based in Washington, DC. He reports daily for the TODAY Show, NBC Nightly News, NBC News Radio, MSNBC and CNBC. In 2013, he was the most-used correspondent on any broadcast network evening news program. His portfolio of beats includes transportation, consumer and regulatory issues, NASA, business and economics.
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Since 2005, Costello has been NBCâ€™s lead aviation correspondent. Among the major aviation stories heâ€™s covered: the crash of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco; Air France 447 over the Atlantic; Colgan Air flight 3407 in Buffalo; Comair 5191 in Lexington; and the Miracle on the Hudson landing in 2009 for which NBC News was honored with a prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award and a National Emmy Award for Breaking News Coverage.
In 2008, Costello led NBC's Emmy award-winning coverage of the Financial Bailout Talks in Congress. But he insists his favorite stories involve ordinary people living extraordinary lives.
Former NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert brought Costello to the DC bureau in 2005. Previously, he was based at NBC News headquarters in New York.
From 1996 to 2004, Costello worked at CNBC Business News. He was on duty as CNBCâ€™s Nasdaq Correspondent in Manhattan when terrorists attacked on 9/11. From 1996-1999, he reported from London for both CNBC and NBC News, covering Europe's monetary union, the financial markets and the death of Princess Diana, among his many stories.
His assignments have taken him around the world -- from the terrorist bombings in Madrid, to the Korean DMZ, the Persian Gulf, Russia, Kazakhstan, Japan, Central America, Eastern and Western Europe.
Before joining CNBC, Costello contributed to Financial Times TV and CNN in Brussels, Belgium while also earning a master's degree. He spent six years at KUSA-TV in Denver, and two years at KVIA-TV in El Paso, TX. Heâ€™s honored to have been on the teams that have won National and Regional Emmys, a DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award, Edward R. Murrow honors, Sigma Delta Chi Awards, National Headliner honors, Best of Gannett, and Best Reporting honors from the Associated Press.
Costello holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a master's degree in Administration/International Commerce from Boston Universityâ€™s Brussels Graduate Center. He is married to Astrid Boon of Kortenberg, Belgium, and has two children.