Malaysian investigators and America’s FBI are trying to restore files deleted last month from the home flight-simulator of the pilot aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, to see if they shed any light on the jet’s disappearance.
Files containing records of simulations carried out on the programme were deleted on 3 February from the device found in the home of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu said.
Investigators will want to check the files for any signs of unusual flight paths that could help explain where the missing plane went. A US official said the FBI has been given electronic data to analyse.
The country’s defence minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, stressed that the pilot is considered innocent until proven guilty of any wrongdoing. He added that members of the captain’s family are co-operating with the inquiry.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on 8 March with 239 people on board during a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Malaysian authorities have not ruled anything out, but have said the evidence so far suggests the flight was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next and why.
Investigators have identified two giant arcs of territory spanning the possible positions of the plane about seven hours after take-off, based on its last faint signal to a satellite – an hourly “handshake” that continues even when communications are switched off. The arcs stretch up as far as Kazakhstan in central Asia and down into the southern Indian Ocean.
Police are considering the possibility of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board, and have asked for background checks from abroad on all foreign passengers.
Mr Hishammuddin said such checks have been received for all the foreigners except those from Ukraine and Russia, which account for three passengers.
“So far, no information of significance on any passengers has been found,” he said.
The pilot joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981 and had more than 18,000 hours of flight experience. People who knew him have described him as sociable, caring and dedicated to his job.
The crisis has exposed the lack of a failsafe way of tracking modern passenger planes when data transmission systems and transponders – which make them visible to civilian radar – have been disabled.
Relatives of passengers on the missing airliner – two-thirds of them from China – have grown increasingly frustrated over the lack of progress with the search, which has involved personnel from 26 countries. Planes sweeping the Indian Ocean and satellites over central Asia have turned up no new clues.
Before yesterday’s news briefing in Kuala Lumpur, two female Chinese relatives of passengers held up a banner saying “Truth” in Chinese and started shouting. They were led away by security.
“I want you to help me to find my son,” one of them said.
Mr Hishammuddin said a delegation of Malaysian government officials, diplomats, air force and civil aviation officials will head to Beijing, where many of the passengers’ relatives are gathered, to give them updates.
He also said that the military in the Maldives confirmed to Malaysia that reports of a sighting of the plane by villagers there were “not true”.