To all appearances, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the 53-year-old pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370, was obsessed with flying. He loved it so much that he even built a flight simulator in his own home.
But now, almost two weeks after the plane disappeared with 239 people on board, Zaharie's love of flying is coming under scrutiny. His beloved flight simulator is being investigated by authorities. They hope that the data found on the simulator – or even the lack of data found – could offer some clues to what happened to the plane.
Is there any real evidence that makes the flight simulator suspicious? Or is this a sign that the search for clues in the case of MH370 is getting desperate? Let's review.
First, let's see the flight simulator.
Zaharie had quite the online footprint. Notably, he had a YouTube account, where he uploaded videos that dealt with subjects such as how to optimize your air conditioning and fix your ice maker. In one video about air conditioning, Zaharie can be seen sitting in front of his flight simulator at the start:
What else do we know about Zaharie Ahmad Shah's flight simulator?
The flight simulator is a three-paneled machine that Zaharie apparently built himself and loved to show off. In the post below, made to Zaharie's Facebook page, you can see that he made no secret of the simulator:
In comments to this post, translated by Mother Jones, Zaharie seems quite happy to describe the technical aspects of his hobby:
Shohimi Harun (an aviator for Malaysia Airlines): How much GPU needs to be installed?
Shah: Depends on how much is one's obsession. One is enough for starters, I'm a SIM extremist. Heheh.
Shohimi Harun: Extremist, okay, as long as you don't become a terrorist.
Nigel Magness (also employed by Malaysia Airlines): Power…[means "amazing" in Malaysian slang]
Is it unusual for a pilot to have a flight simulator like this?
A little unusual. Someone who has flown as much as Zaharie probably doesn't need to spend more time practicing flying at home. Capt. John Cox, a retired pilot and founder of aviation consulting firm Safety Operating Systems, told NBC news that “for people who don’t fly or for private pilots, it’s normal to have these kinds of things. For professional pilots, it’s unusual."
Still, according to his friends, Zaharie was an obsessed with flying. Plus, he was a certified by Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) to conduct simulator tests for pilots, according to Reuters.
"We used to tease him. We would ask him, why are you bringing your work home," one pilot who knew him for 20 years told Reuters.
Why would authorities investigate the flight simulator?
The immediate answer to this is simple: Malaysian authorities appear to be no closer to finding MH370 than they were 10 days ago. They need to investigate every single possibility.
Specifically, however, authorities now believe that if a sharp west turn was made using a computer system on the plane, it was likely done by an experienced pilot. Zahare had 18,365 hours of flying experience, compared with his co-pilot, who had just 2,763 flying hours.
And what would they be looking for?
“The first thing I’d be looking for is to see whether the captain flew a flight profile like the one we’ve been talking about for the last eight days,” Greg Feith, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, told The Washington Post last week. “Did he normally simulate flights to places he wouldn’t normally go?”
I heard something about missing data. What's the deal with that?
That's the big deal today, and one of the reasons that everyone is beginning to look hard at the flight simulator. Malaysian authorities have said that log data for the simulator were deleted on Feb. 3, almost five weeks before the plane went missing. If Zaharie had been practicing the route that took MH37o on its mysterious western course on March 8, he may have deleted it to cover his tracks.
Or did he? The deletion of logs doesn't seem all that suspicious right now. “It’s entirely possible that files might have been deleted for genuine purposes,” Chris Yates, a British aviation consultant, told The Post. “The fact of the matter is files can often be shifted, put on a hard drive, what have you. The files might have been deleted to maintain the hard drive.”
Authorities are working to see if they can recover the deleted logs.
Is the rest of Zaharie's life suspicious?
That depends whom you ask. Zaharie lived with his wife in a gated community in Kuala Lumpar. There have been reports in the Malaysian press that the couple appeared to be in the process of breaking up, though this has been disputed. He has three adult children, one of whom was living in Melbourne, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. His friends and colleagues have been very vocal in saying he was a good guy and they couldn't imagine him doing anything like this. Sivarasa Rasiah, a member of Malaysia's parliament, recently told the New York Times that the idea of Zaharie somehow being involved in a nefarious plot was "quite unthinkable."
To some, however, Zaharie's link to politicians such as Sivarsa is in itself suspicious. Zaharie is said to have become increasingly political over the past few years, joining the opposition People’s Justice Party in January 2013. The leader of the People's Justice Party, Anwar Ibrahim, is one of the most controversial figures in Malaysian politics. He was recently given a five-year sentence on sodomy charges that many say are politically motivated. Zaharie is a distant relative of Anwar, though the opposition leader has said that the speculation about political motives was "grossly unfair" to the pilot.
Returning to his social media presence, Zaharie does seem to have strong political convictions, but he also seems like an average guy who loves cooking and tinkering with technology. In his one Facebook post clearly discussing terrorism, he offers condolences to America after the Boston Marathon bombings.