The crash of the GermanWings A320 from apparent pilot suicide will refocus many minds on the unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 just over a year ago. One of the many theories about MH370 that has gained currency is that pilot-in-command Capt. Zahari Shah was responsible. Perhaps an “insider” hijacking that went wrong. I have just returned from two weeks in Malaysia, where I learned more about Captain Zahari and his controversial connection to the opposition political party there.
On the anniversary of the disappearance, the Malaysian Ministry of Transport issued a “Factual Information” report by the Malaysian ICAO Annex 13 Safety Investigation Team. This 585-page report, compiled with the help of accident investigators from seven other countries, purports to describe the progress of the investigation. It brings into one report much of the information that has already been released over the past year. Unfortunately, it contains little or no information on two important aspects of the incident, which have a bearing on the theories that pilot intervention caused MH370 to disappear.
First, it notes that the last transmission from the aircraft communications and addressing reporting system (ACARS) was 25 minutes into the flight, after which it ceased to report. There is no discussion in this report about how this might have occurred. If ACARS was disabled, was specialist engineering knowledge required? Was access to an equipment bay required? It was another 13 minutes before the transponder stopped operating.
Second, although there is reference to the police investigation of the flight crew’s financial circumstances, that included searches of the homes of the flight crew, there is no mention of the discovery in Zahari’s house of a home-built flight simulator, or its subsequent examination. So we must still rely on last year’s unofficial leaks from the police to local media for the knowledge that Zahari had constructed flight plans to airfields in and around the Indian Ocean on this simulator.
What else do we know that supports the theory of pilot intervention? Well, Zahari was a strong supporter of the People’s Justice Party (Malaysian acronym PKR), led by Malaysia’s embattled opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. The Malaysian government has been trying to silence the opposition for years and allegedly has corrupted the judiciary in order to do so. (I should make clear that the PKR is not an Islamist party). In fact, Zahari is a distant relative of Anwar.
The day before MH370 took off, Anwar was sentenced to five years in jail on a charge of sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia. Just a coincidence? Or the trigger for some act of retribution by a disaffected citizen against the Malaysian state?
Last year, some senior Malaysian government officials briefed unofficially that they blamed the pilots for the disappearance. Last week, I was told by a reliable source close to the airline that at least one senior Malaysian Airlines manager who has known Zahari for many years believes that he was responsible for the disappearance. This opinion is not based on some secret known only to insiders, that the captain was in some way mentally unstable. Rather, it derives from the senior manager’s assessment of his character and experience. Zahari apparently knew more about the 777 and its workings than any other flightcrew at the airline. He had flown the 777 for 17 years and was an almost obsessive enthusiast for flying. Hence the home-based flight simulator.
Of course, this is all circumstantial evidence. It no doubt grieves Zahari’s mourning family to have such evidence aired publicly. The senior Malaysian Airlines manager might be a strong supporter of the government party, looking to scapegoat the opposition. Theories involving some sort of onboard electrical fire—perhaps in the avionics bay—that propagated only so far as to disable communications, and all those onboard, have equal currency. But in the absence of any firm evidence, speculation is inevitable.
A few weeks ago, National Geographic released a documentary on MH370. You can find it on YouTube. After reviewing various scenarios, it opted for this one: as MH370 crossed the FIR boundary between Malaysia and Vietnam and said goodbye to the Kuala Lumpur Control, Zahari asked his copilot to fetch him a cup of coffee. The captain locked the cockpit door after the copilot left, donned his oxygen mask and depressurized the jet. This disabled all those travelling behind him. He then flew the aircraft (with the aid of the FMS) until his oxygen ran out. That would explain the three turns MH370 made in the hour following last contact that have been reconstructed from two sources: the analysis of primary radar recordings of an unidentified aircraft that crossed the Malaysian peninsula before heading northwest toward the Andaman Sea, plus the satellite “handshakes” calculated by Inmarsat.