A flight simulator seized from the home of the captain of the missing Malaysian passenger jet is now at the centre of the investigation into how the airliner with 239 people on board disappeared.
Investigators, including agents from the FBI, are trying to restore deleted files from the simulator installed at the Kuala Lumpur home of Malaysia Airlines captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah in the hope that they might contain clues about the aircraft’s disappearance, which has sparked an unprecedented search spanning 6.2 million square kilometres and 26 countries.
Files containing records of flight simulations were deleted on February 3 from the flight simulator, little more than a month before flight MH370 vanished from radar screens on March 8, according to Malaysia’s police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar.
“What we have found out is that the simulator… the data logs of the games has been cleared,” he said yesterday.
It was not immediately clear whether investigators thought that deleting the files was unusual. The files might hold signs of unusual flight paths that could help explain where the missing plane went. Then again, the files could have been deleted simply to clear memory for other material.
The latest twist is likely to rekindle speculation that one or both of the cockpit crew may have been responsible for the airliner’s disappearance.
“Local and international expertise has been recruited to examine the pilot’s flight simulator,” Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said, adding: “Forensic work to retrieve this data is ongoing.”
Malaysian officials renewed appeals for people not to rush to judgment, stressing that the crew and passengers remained innocent until proven guilty.
Hussein told a news conference that Zaharie is considered innocent until proven guilty. He said members of the pilot’s family are cooperating in the investigation.
Zaharie was known to some within the online world of flight simulation enthusiasts.
In a post on one forum, the CEO of flight simulation software company PMDG wrote that Zaharie was a customer who “had developed an online presence in which he dedicated many hours of his time to promoting the enjoyment of flying generally, and flight simulation specifically.”
The company CEO, Robert Randazzo, could not be reached directly for comment, but the publisher of the popular forum AVSIM Online, Tom Allensworth, confirmed that the post was from Randazzo.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorised to discuss the ongoing investigation by name, said the FBI has been asked to analyse the deleted simulator files.
Officials also revealed that the Boeing 777’s flight-management system may have been manipulated after 1.07am on the night the flight disappeared, around the time the plane’s communications system was switched off.
The new details come amid reports that new co-ordinates - not in the original flightpath - were added during the flight.
“I can confirm that the aircraft flew on normal routing up until the waypoint IGARI [around the area where the plane disappeared from civilian radar]. There is no additional waypoint on MH370’s documented flight plan, which depicts normal routing all the way to [its scheduled destination] Beijing,” Hishammuddin said.
In his first public comments on the mind-boggling disappearance, Obama said that every available US resource is being used in the search, including the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board and others who deal with aviation. Finding the plane will take time because the search area is so vast, he said, but the US will continue working in close cooperation with the Malaysian government, which is leading the investigation, “to see if we can get to the bottom of this.”
“We have put every resource that we have available at the disposal of the search process,” Obama said in an interview with Dallas-Fort Worth television station KDFW. He said the nation’s thoughts and prayers were with the grieving families. Three Americans were aboard the flight.
“We’re going to keep on working with the international community” to try to determine what happened to the plane, Obama said. The president has been getting daily updates on the status of the search and the investigation, and US contributions to the search effort, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
In the interview, Obama also addressed rampant speculation and multiple theories about what may have happened to the aircraft, blaming it on the many unanswered questions about the mysterious disappearance nearly two weeks ago of the Boeing 777. He acknowledged that it’s a “tough situation.”
“It’s a big piece of planet that we’re searching and sometimes these things take time, but we hope and pray that we can get to the bottom of what happened,” he said.
WHAT’S A FLIGHT SIMULATOR?
The purpose of a flight simulator is to recreate the feel of piloting a plane. Simulators can range from software on a personal computer used as a hobby, to sophisticated full-motion simulators used for training and annual recertification for professional pilots.
An example is Microsoft Flight Simulator, which can be purchased for about US$30 and includes the precise layouts of runways for airports around the world. There are other commercially available programs, known as “add-ons,” that provide more realistic versions of specific aircraft than those that come with programs right out of the box. One version of an add-on for a Boeing 777, the kind of plane missing since about an hour after taking off from Malaysia to China, costs US$80.
The programs are realistic, but run on any computer. Some hobbyists build boxes and panels with physical switches, or buy them separately from companies that make joysticks and other hardware for a variety of games and simulators.
Watch: MH370: journalists stopped from accessing the families
WHO ARE THESE VIRTUAL CAPTAINS?
Aviation enthusiasts have all sorts of hobbies that some outsiders might consider unusual. And some are very dedicated to their hobbies, like those who stand outside in all kinds of weather to take pictures of airplanes landing at their local airports. Some people write down the tail numbers of every plane they have ever flown in as a passenger.
Mike Pohl, who owns ACES Flight Simulation in Minneapolis, where customers can use his flight simulators, says simulators are used by people around the world, and not just pilots. Pohl said the customers who come into his business to use simulators have ranged from children to former space shuttle pilots, and many more have flight simulators at home.
There are more than a few enthusiasts. One popular forum, AVSIM Online, has 138,000 members, according to Tom Allensworth, its publisher and CEO.
The disappearance of the plane has prompted calls for in-flight streaming of black box data over remote areas, but industry executives say implementing changes may be complex and costly.
Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board, said this incident and the 2009 loss of an Air France flight in the Atlantic should spur reforms in what he described an outdated accident investigation process.
Rosenker, a retired US Air Force general, said finding a way to transmit limited information from flight data and cockpit voice recorders to a virtual “cloud” database would help authorities launch accident investigations sooner and locate a plane if it got into trouble while out of reach of ground-based radars.
“This is the second accident in five years where we’ve had to wait to get the black boxes back,” Rosenker said. “We need to bring the concept of operations for accident investigations and the technology of what is available up to the 21st century.”
Claims a plane was seen by villagers flying low over the Maldives in the Indian Ocean search area have also been ruled out.
After China’s ambassador to Malaysia ruled out foul play involving any of the nation’s 153 nationals on board, India did likewise. A US report said Indonesia had also cleared its nationals of any wrongdoing.
Malaysia said it had received passenger background checks from all countries except Russia and Ukraine. No information of significance had been found.
Associated Press, Reuters