Zaharie Ahmad Shah—the Malaysia Airlines pilot about whom the whole world is wondering—was just another face in a well-mannered crowd at an opposition rally in Petaling Jaya last March.
The main speaker was K.S. Bawani, a 28 year-old law student and the newest celebrity in Malaysian politics. Zaharie made a video of her speaking from the stage in a yellow t-shirt. The weapons she called on others to employ in a campaign for social justice were not bullets and bombs.
“Facebook,” she said in English. “Social media.”
When she said something particularly pleasing to the crowd, it responded with polite applause, not chants or shouts. Zaharie had one hand occupied with making the video and he seems to have recorded himself offering two restrained “w-o-o-os” in lieu of clapping.
His tone as captured by the video he then posted on Facebook is not manifestly that of some a fanatic or a psychopath. He sounds not much more strident than he did in his last recorded transmission aboard Flight MH 370, after an air traffic controller told him he had entered Vietnamese airspace.
“All right, good night,” he said in a classic pilot tone.
With word from a Malaysian official that this transmission had come after the aircraft's key tracking system had been manually shut off, many experts are coming to believe that MH 370 was deliberately hijacked by someone with considerable knowledge of flying and of the plane.
That has made the pilot as well as the less experienced co-pilot possible suspects. Police have searched both their homes as part of what Malaysian authorities now deem a criminal investigation. Zaharie has a flight simulator that he built in his home and police will no doubt be checking its computer to see if he tried any scenarios similar to the flight that has become a baffling mystery.
So far, nothing beyond the apparent circumstances of the plane’s disappearance suggests that Zaharie was responsible. And we should take great care that we do not turn him into the Richard Jewell of the airways.
Unless the investigators have learned things they are not yet saying, the flight simulator appears to be only an extension of Zaharie's passion for aviation, which extended to building and flying models of aircraft and helicopters. He even constructed a scaled down replica of the PBY Catalina flying boat, an amphibious plane that was used to rescue downed pilots during World War II.
“RESCUE,” is written in big letters across the top of the wing.
Zaharie posted photos of the plane on Facebook along with the political rally video and several clips in which he offers handy household tips such as making your air conditioner more efficient or sealing your windows.
He also posted the tips videos on YouTube, where his eclectic likes suggest the very opposite of a narrow-minded fanatic. His interests ranged from “Seth MacFarlane on atheism and gay rights” to “Goodbye, Pope Benedict XVI” to The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason to Comedy Central.
Zaharie also liked a video by Anwar Ibrahim, head of the main opposition party. Anwar looks and sounds like an accountant as he addresses a question no more incendiary than monetary debt, with charts included.
In another Facebook posting, Zaharie reported that he would be serving as a “postal vote watchdog” during the general election last May, the first where Malaysians could mail in votes.
As a pilot, Zaharie likely took particular offense when the ruling party began chartering as many as 16 planes a day, reportedly including a Boeing 747, to fly in some 40,000 voters into Kuala Lumpur airport in the days leading up to the election. The opposition said that it had learned of the flights from employees of Malaysia Airlines and the discount AirAsia and that the voters were actually foreign nationals from Borneo.
You have to wonder if Zaharie found himself in the position of flying in questionable voters for the ruling party even as he served as an election watchdog for the opposition.
The ruling party acknowledged the flights but insisted they were just part of a “get out the vote” effort so people could cast their ballots in their home states.
The opposition still narrowly won the popular vote. But, thanks partly to voters airlifted into key states, the government nonetheless managed to retain control of parliament and therefore power.
In what is widely viewed in Malaysia as an act of revenge for having come so close to victory, the opposition leader Anwar was arrested on reinstated charges of sodomy that had been previously tossed out by an appeals court. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison on March 6, the day before Flight MH 370 disappeared.
Zaharie was surely outraged and the flown in votes likely still rankled, but nobody who knows him seems able to believe he would do anything to endanger his passengers.
He was still a guy who gave only a restrained “w-o-o-o” at a rally and who built a model plane that was stenciled with the word that is at the core of every family member’s deepest wish in the continuing mystery of what happened to Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew.