17 Mar 2014

Who are the pilots of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370?

Focus in the hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 turns to the pilots, after it is revealed that the plane’s tracking system was turned off before the last verbal message from the cockpit.

Left to right - Fariq Abdul Hamid and Zaharie Ahmad Shah

On Sunday night, in response to a question from Channel 4 News, Malaysia’s acting transport minister confirmed that the plane’s tracking system, Acars, “was disabled before” a verbal message from the cockpit saying: “alright, good night”.

As Asia Correspondent John Sparks writes, the implication is that one or both of the pilots had “full knowledge of the scheme to render the plane invisible and fly it off-course and it reinforces the theory that they may have been directly involved.”.

Who were the pilots?

Police have already searched the homes of the flight’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid. Malaysia Airlines has said that the pilots did not request to fly with each other.

The pair have been represented in the media respectively as a flying-obsessed geek and a reckless cockpit Romeo – but what do we really know?

The ‘tech geek’

Mr Zaharie was a highly experienced pilot, having clocked up 18,365 hours of flight time across a range of aircraft. The 53-year-old father and grandfather had joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981.

Much attention has focused on the presence of a flight simulator in his home, which has been taken by police. Police have said that the programmes on the flight simulator, which Mr Zaharie built himself, “appear to be normal”.

One former colleague described the captain as an “aviation tech geek”.

“We used to tease him,” said one pilot who had known Mr Zaharie for 20 years. “We would ask him, ‘Why are you bringing your work home?'”

Mr Zaharie’s flight simulator can been seen in the background of one of his YouTube videos (video, above) – posted to help people with problems like how to set one’s air-conditioning to save money on your electricity bill.

Mr Zaharie’s love of flying also extends further than the flight simulator. His family has posted a tribute video on YouTube (video, below) – a number of family photographs set to music, including ones of Mr Zaharie indulging his love of remote controlled airplanes.

Attention has also been drawn to Mr Zaharie’s political motivations. It has been reported that Mr Zaharie was a politically active supporter of Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Mr Anwar was jailed for homosexuality hours before the Malaysia Airlines flight took off, a sentencing that has been described as being politically motivated.

Asked if Mr Zaharie’s background as an opposition supporter was being examined, a senior Malaysian police officer said: “We need to cover all our bases.”

It has also been reported in various newspapers that Mr Zaharie’s family had moved out of the family home the day before the plane went missing.

Malaysia Airlines has said it does not believe Mr Zaharie would have sabotaged the plane. One pilot who knew the captain said: “Zaharie is not suicidal, not a political fanatic as some foreign media are saying. Is it wrong for anyone to have an opinion about politics?”

The ‘reckless Romeo’

The co-pilot of the missing flight was less experienced than his colleague – with a relatively low number of flying hours (2,763), and having worked for Malaysia Airlines for around seven years.

Australian media have reported that the 27-year-old and another pilot invited two women to join them in the cockpit during a flight from Malaysia to Thailand in 2011. It was claimed that Mr Fariq smoked and flirted with the two women.

However, friends and family have rejected the suggestion that he was reckless, describing the co-pilot as shy and religious.

Read more: Invisibility and aliens: missing flight conspiracy theories

Fariq’s grandmother, Halimah Abdul Rahman, 84, told the media: “He is a good person, respectful to elders and religious.”

Another relative said: “He is a good student. He worked very hard to get where he was. His parents are so proud of him.”

A Twitter user who said they knew Mr Fariq said: “The Fariq I know is soft spoken and quite shy.”

Mr Fariq is the son of a high-ranking civil servant in Malaysia’s central Selangor state near Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

His family and friends said he was often seen attending prayers at a mosque near his family home.

Four options

Like so much about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, very little is known about the involvement of the pilots.

However, police do seem convinced that the disappearance in a deliberate act.

Malaysia police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar, said the four areas of focus of the investigation are “hijacking”, “sabotage”, ” personal problem” and “psychological problem”.