The vilification of Zaharie Ahmad Shah began early. Within a week of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, it was Shah, the captain flying the Boeing 777, who was being portrayed as the prime suspect.
Malaysian authorities staged a very public raid on Captain Shah’s home. Police were filmed carrying away his personal computer. Shortly thereafter they said he had a flight simulator program in his computer. (Many professional pilots use simulators to keep themselves sharp in an age when most of a flight is on autopilot.) They suggested that he had used the simulator to rehearse his plan to, in effect, hijack his own airplane.
This scenario has been resurrected in the past week, beginning with two reports, one published in the U.S. and one in Australia, and since then has wide coverage around the world. Responses from authorities in Malaysia have been confusing and in some cases contradictory. In order to judge how seriously to take the charge that this was a deliberate case of murder-suicide in the air it’s necessary to go back to the night of March 8, 2014.
Flight 370 had inexplicably broken away from its flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and, after a series of erratic course changes, headed off into the void of the southern Indian Ocean. Malaysian officials inferred that Shah had rehearsed this exact course on his simulator.
Once it became part of the news cycle this explanation was difficult to discredit or dislodge. It was the simplest theory to accept. It didn’t involve pursuing complex technical issues about whether some sudden and serious technical failure had overtaken the airplane, its crew and passengers. The pilots (the copilot was a young man named Fariq Abdul Hamid) were missing, presumed dead, and could not respond to the accusations and the airplane itself had left behind few clues to its behavior.
The only problem with this scenario was why? Why would a pilot with an impeccable record who, at the age of 53, had flown more than 18,000 hours on commercial jets, 8,659 of those hours on the Boeing 777, go rogue and destroy himself and 238 other mortals?
Or, if the crew were innocent but had been overpowered and the airplane taken over by hijackers or terrorists why was there no ransom request or claim by a terrorist group?
After a while the trashing of the pilots lost traction. Malaysian officials had proved themselves to be serial bunglers when handling news conferences. Other, more bizarre theories were floated, including by Mahathir Mohammed, a former Malaysian prime minister who still retained enormous political influence, who said that he believed the airplane’s navigation system had been hacked by the Central Intelligence Agency and the 777 spirited away to a secret location.
Later, according to various reports published at the time, the role of Captain Shah’s personal flight simulator was the subject of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in their labs in Washington, D.C.—the Malaysians said they had turned over the hard drives on his home computer and, after a few months, they confirmed that the FBI had found nothing incriminating.
On the first anniversary of the catastrophe, the international team conducting the investigation issued a report, nearly 200 pages long, called “Factual Information.” In the absence of any physical evidence to examine according to the normal protocols of a crash investigation this was a gathering of all the technical records and history related to the airplane and the flight, its crew, and the (disastrously muddled) efforts to track its course when it vanished.
The report included what amounted to a thorough background check on Captain Shah. It covered his financial affairs (there was no record of him taking out a life insurance policy) and his medical records (he passed all his regular six-monthly examinations).
Investigators looked at surveillance video of the captain’s behavior at Kuala Lumpur Airport while preparing for four flights, including the final one.
“There were no behavioural signs of social isolation, change in habits or interest, self-neglect drug or alcohol abuse,” the report said.
And, under the heading of “Psychological and Social Events” the report concluded: “The Captain’s ability to handle stress at work and at home was good. There was no known history of apathy, anxiety or irritability. There were no significant changes in his life style, interpersonal conflict or family stresses.”
With that, for most observers any lingering suspicions directed at the pilots seemed to have been laid to rest. Significantly, the Malaysian officials who had once been so ready to malign the crew (in a country where political character assassination was a favored instrument) allowed this seemingly impartial verdict to stand without challenging it. From this it was fair to assume that their conspiracy theory had come up empty.
To be sure, some aviation experts and some factions in the aviation industry persisted in believing that—of all the credible scenarios that could explain how the airplane had continued to fly for more than six hours without anyone on board being heard from—the likeliest explanation was an action by the pilots. For example, David Learmount, the consulting editor for Flight Global and a very respected veteran analyst, admits to no alternative, and a number of airline chiefs feel the same way.
However, the belief that Captain Shah carried out a premeditated murder-suicide flight suddenly gained renewed attention a week ago from two sources. Jeff Wise reported in New York magazine that a confidential Malaysian police memo confirmed that Shah had used his simulator to practice a route deep into the southern Indian Ocean. And a similar story by Byron Bailey in The Australian newspaper also added that the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, ATSB, leading the undersea search for the airplane, were in denial because they rejected any suggestion of the crew’s involvement.
Since then Captain Shah’s reputation has, once more, been traduced with reckless enthusiasm.
One reason is that the ATSB has made confusing responses to the new allegations. Initially they said of Bailey’s assertion that the flight was a planned murder-suicide: “There is no evidence to support this claim.”
Two days later the ATSB appeared to walk back on this rebuttal by fudging.
In a new statement they said, “This type of scenario is not new and has been reported in the media previously. The [investigating team] has considered the information and it will be dealt with in its final report.” And later they said, “The simulator information shows only the possibility of planning.”
Were they confirming the use of the simulator or confirming the media reports of the simulations? The Daily Beast asked the ATSB for clarification, and a spokesman, Tim Dawson, responded (the emphasis below was bold in his statement):
“1. It was evident from data recovered from the flight simulator that a course had been flown in the simulator that tracked well south in the Indian Ocean.
2. The simulation may show the possibility of planning, but the simulated flight in itself is not evidence of murder-suicide (i.e. there is no evidence to support the claim that it was murder-suicide).
3. We have known about the FBI report for two years and it was widely reported. This is not new.”
In fact, the first reports of Shah using the simulator came after the police raid on his home, as I record above. Reports that the hard drives had been examined by the FBI and that nothing incriminating had been found on them came months later.
However, the role of the FBI has now come into question.
Malaysia’s national police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, said this week—astonishingly—that his police force had never handed any documents or information to any authority abroad, including the FBI.
And Liow Tiong Lai, the Malaysian transport minister, said there was no evidence to prove that Captain Shah had used the simulator to plot the course eventually taken by the 777.
“We are not aware of that and there is no evidence that he was flying on that route. As of today, the criminal investigation is still ongoing.”
This confusion should act as a timely reminder to regard any utterance from Malaysian sources with more than usual skepticism. There are many factions within the Malaysian political regime and the police, and as many motives for what they say.
In his New York story, based on the Malaysian police document, Wise does prudently include a caveat.
“However, it’s not entirely clear that the recorded flight simulator data is conclusive. The difference between the simulated and actual flights are significant, most notably in the final direction in which they were heading. It’s possible that their overall similarities are coincidental—that Zaharie didn’t intend his simulator flight as a practice run but had merely decided to fly someplace unusual.”
Indeed, in a later posting, Wise gives some of the navigation way points that he says were recovered from the simulator and one of them includes the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that are on a main air lane west from Malaysia to India, and the altitude shown is 40,000 feet, which would be the normal cruise height for the last leg of a flight.
It seems highly possible that the southern Indian Ocean route in the simulator was only one of what could have been others that were, in fact, exercises in virtual globe-trotting beyond Shah’s normal routine.
It’s important to recognize that in the beginning, more than two years ago, the case against Shah was reinforced by details that did, superficially, seem sinister.
One was that the two key ways the airplane had to keep contact with the ground ceased to function after the pilots drastically altered course: the transponder that sent signals enabling the flight to be tracked by radar, and a system automatically transmitting the technical health of the airplane every 30 minutes.
Most of the reporting said these systems had been “turned off” … presumably as the first malicious step by the crew to make the airplane vanish. In fact, the reasoned response would have been to say that the systems had failed, that they had stopped working, as the result of a technical emergency.
Also cast as equally sinister was the sudden change of direction of the airplane toward the Strait of Malacca. In fact, this turn to the southwest was consistent with the pilots desperately needing to find the closest airport in an emergency. There was such an airport on nearby Langkawi Island with a 12,500-foot runway, ideal in such an emergency.
Experienced 777 pilots believe that the changes of course suggest that the pilots were dealing with cascading technical challenges, not deliberately evading radar and heading off on a prolonged murder-suicide mission.
As it turned out, the flight never descended from its cruise height. As it flew northwest over the Strait of Malacca it was tracked by radar until it reached a point midway between Indonesia and Thailand. Langkawi Island was at the southern tip of Thailand, immediately on the right.
A few minutes after that last radar contact, the 777 made its final turn toward the southern Indian Ocean. According to calculations made by the ATSB it remained at its cruise height of 35,000 feet and there is no way of knowing whether the autopilot had been programmed to make that turn. The ATSB has, however, been firm in saying that by the end of the 5.8 hours the jet had left to fly before it ran out of gas and crashed into the ocean it was not under the control of pilots.
The problem here, once more, is that everybody in this cauldron of speculation, including me, is lacking one thing: incontrovertible evidence. With very little verifiable information to go on there is no real level of confidence that any scenario seeking to explain what overtook Flight 370 will ever be complete enough to solve the mystery—that would need to be informed by the discovery of the remains of the airplane at the bottom of the ocean.
The ATSB’s position in the controversy is difficult. They are caught between a rock and a wet place, between the Malaysian leadership of the investigation, with all the political pressures that that involves, and their own role in professionally designing and executing the deepwater search. Their most ardent defense is devoted to assuring the world that they have been searching in the right place.
The search, delayed by bad weather, is due to end in the next month or so. The governments of China, Malaysia, and Australia have said that when it does, it will be “suspended” rather than terminated, to be resumed only if credible new evidence appears causing the search to be resumed at a different location.
And now that issue has become more acute because of what amounts to conflicting approaches by two teams of oceanographers.
Since last summer several significant pieces of wreckage from the Malaysian 777 have turned up on beaches in the western Indian Ocean.
An Australian team of oceanographers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, CSIRO, have taken the locations where debris has been found and reverse-engineered its course using computer programming called drift modeling. If these tracks converge at a point in the eastern Indian Ocean that falls within the area being searched it would increase the ATSB’s confidence that they have been searching, all along, in the right place.
The Australian oceanographers have not yet published their findings, but another team of oceanographers, based in Italy, has. And they have suggested that a more promising area to search lies some 500 kilometres north of where the current search is about to end. This team, from the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, is using a European drift model that, they say, is so precise that if a new piece of debris turns up they can update the result “in a matter of minutes.”
The Australians have yet to respond.