Investigators stepping up scrutiny of the crew of the missing Malaysian Air passenger jet are piecing together a profile of the pilot, whose Facebook and YouTube postings show a man passionate about aviation, handy at repairs and supportive of the country’s political opposition.
Police on March 15 searched Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s house and that of first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid after Prime Minister Najib Razak said the plane was intentionally diverted en-route to Beijing on March 8. They spoke to Zaharie’s family members, and the airline said the two of them didn’t ask to fly together.
Flight 370 lost contact and disappeared from radar screens less than an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur with Zaharie, 52, at the command. About eight hours earlier, a Malaysian court sentenced opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whom Zaharie supported, to five years in jail after overturning a 2012 acquittal of a sodomy charge. It isn’t known how much investigators are focusing on Zaharie compared with the rest of the crew, and Anwar’s sentencing wouldn’t have been likely to trigger a deadly response, political consultants said.
“Political contests have not grown to the stage where there is such a level of hostility and Malaysia does not have a history of political violence of that nature,” said Khoo Kay Peng, an independent consultant based near Kuala Lumpur. “He wasn’t even in the close circle of Anwar’s political supporters and there is no right-wing faction” in the People’s Justice Party, he said.
Zaharie joined Malaysian Airline System Bhd. in 1981 after training for about two years in Manila, and had accumulated 18,365 flying hours since. The father of three displayed a deep passion for the Boeing Co. 777-200 jetliner, building his own six-screen flight simulator at his home in a gated community outside of Kuala Lumpur. He also had a passion for cooking and posted videos offering home-repair tips.
The pilot was a jovial man who was quick to cheer others up and liked to joke around, said Mohd Nasir Othman, a friend of about four decades since their school days in Malaysia’s Penang state. He had a sharp mind and enjoyed tinkering with motorcycles during their teenage years, Mohd Nasir said in an interview.
Mohd Nasir said Zaharie was a “moderate Muslim” who performed the daily rituals. Even so, Zaharie’s YouTube page linked to videos on atheism and subscribing to an official channel of Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion,” a bestseller defending atheism. After the Boston Marathon bombings, Zaharie expressed condolences for the victims.
Zaharie’s family members didn’t respond to e-mailed requests for comment.
On his Facebook page, Zaharie also “liked” some key Malaysian political opposition leaders. Among them were former deputy prime minister Anwar and his daughter Nurul Izzah. He also followed the pages of the Democratic Action Party, a member of Anwar’s People’s Alliance coalition.
Anwar’s People’s Justice Party urged the government not to politicize the possibility of a hijacking and said allegations the pilots played a role in the plane’s disappearance are “totally speculative and it is irresponsible to make insinuations without verified information,” according to an e-mailed statement from Tian Chua, the party’s vice president.
We are “committed to a peaceful and constitutional means of political struggle,” Chua said. “We have consistently denounced violence and any form of terrorism.”
People’s Justice Party spokesman Fahmi Fadzil, who was at the court house when Anwar was sentenced last week, said he did not see anyone who looked like Zaharie there.
Focus on the pilots of the plane increased after Malaysian authorities yesterday said the 777’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, which transmits text messages and data to and from planes, was disabled before the last voice transmission from the cockpit.
Initial investigations indicated it was the co-pilot who spoke the last words at about 1:19 a.m., Malaysian Air Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters today. The words heard were “alright, good night,” as Malaysian air traffic controllers prepared to hand the plane over to Vietnamese counterparts.
Malaysia’s transport ministry today said police investigations on all crew members, including the pilot and the co-pilot, as well as all ground staff handling the aircraft, started on March 8.
While authorities need to follow all leads, “it’s a bit early to make conclusions” by linking political leanings to the missing plane, said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst based near Kuala Lumpur at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. “As observers, we have no clue what’s going through the minds of the crew, the passengers, the pilots.”
Zaharie’s Facebook posts also show a disdain for the ruling National Front coalition that has been in power since 1957. In elections in May last year, the National Front won a parliamentary majority, its 13th straight election victory, even though it secured only 47 percent of the popular vote. Anwar repeatedly alleged electoral fraud.
Anwar’s sentencing this month was the latest legal setback for the opposition chief, in a saga that began in 1998, when he was ousted as deputy prime minister and heir apparent to the premiership held by Mahathir Mohamad after calling for reforms during the Asian Financial Crisis. He was arrested and spent the next six years in prison on convictions for abuse of power and sodomy. He was released in 2004 after Mahathir retired and a judge overturned the guilty verdict for having sex with a man.
The Court of Appeal on March 7 overturned an acquittal of the sodomy charge from a second trial that delivered a verdict in 2012. Sodomy carries a maximum sentence of as many as 20 years in prison in Malaysia. Anwar has maintained that the charges and convictions were politically motivated.
In the weeks before the 2013 election, Zaharie shared a video of Hishammuddin Hussein, who was at that time home affairs minister and is now acting transportation minister, at a press conference with a caption “real joker.” In another post featuring a doctored picture of Najib, he used the word “moron.”
Zaharie once posted that the opposition offers the only hope to foster democracy in Malaysia.
“Fifty years in power by a single party (coalition) does not say much about democracy in the country,” Zaharie wrote on Jan. 18, 2013. If opposition leaders are “willing to stand in the line of fire, the least we could do is support them. They might not be perceived to be the best candidate, but sacrifice is necessary to achieve the goal of free democracy.”
He signed up as an observer at a polling station during the national elections, and in the following weeks encouraged his friends to attend rallies to protest results.
“There is a rebel in each and everyone of us...let it out!” he wrote more than two weeks after the May 2013 vote.
Zaharie is an alumnus of Penang Free School, which describes itself as an institution for scholars, sportsmen and gentlemen and counts Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, among former students. On its website, the school encouraged visitors to pray for Zaharie and the crew and passengers of the missing plane.
The married pilot excelled in physics and chemistry and was a keen soccer player, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing his classmates.
Zaharie posted videos of himself on YouTube fixing a broken Whirlpool ice maker for a refrigerator with parts he ordered from the U.S., and fixing a window seal at his son’s house. In another, he sat in front of his flight simulator before giving viewers technical directions on how to optimize their air conditioners.
In an online forum for flight simulator enthusiasts in November 2012, he said he was looking for “buddies to share this passion” and showed a picture of his creation. His Facebook account also had photos of him with remote-controlled aircraft.
“As far as pilots are concerned, anyone is actually free to do their own hobbies,” Malaysian Air’s Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters March 14. “Quite a few pilots do have flight simulators at home.”
The government said today the machine has been removed from Zaharie’s home with his family’s assistance and assembled at its headquarters for experts to examine. Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar said yesterday they didn’t see the “necessity at the earlier stage” to seize the pilot’s possessions, including the flight simulator.
Zaharie also loved to cook. He posted pictures of food he prepared such as fried noodles, chili tofu and broccoli and said he preferred to cook than eat out.
“If I eat out it has to be way beyond my capability,” he wrote in February 2013. “Has to be the best restaurant.”
Friends of Zaharie do not buy the theory he is behind the missing plane. The pilot was the type who would take care of his passengers, Mohd Nasir said, citing discussions with acquaintances.
“No matter what his beliefs may be, he is still a professional,” Mohd Nasir said. “He may have his own political views, but to bring down an airplane? That is out of the question. Not Zaharie.”