Malaysia Airlines: Police probe flight engineer

One of the plane's Captains Zaharie Ahmad Shah pictured at his home flight simulator
One of the plane's Captains Zaharie Ahmad Shah pictured at his home flight simulator
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MALAYSIAN police are investigating a flight engineer who was among the passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines plane as they focus on the pilots and anyone else on board who had technical flying knowledge, a senior police official said.

The aviation engineer is Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat, 29, a Malaysian who has said on social media he had worked for a private jet charter company.

“Yes, we are looking into Mohd Khairul as well as the other passengers and crew. The focus is on anyone else who might have had aviation skills on that plane,” a senior police official with knowledge of the investigations said.

Malaysian investigators are trawling through the backgrounds of the pilots, crew and ground staff who worked on the missing Boeing 777-200ER for clues as to why someone on board flew it hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of miles off course.

No trace of the plane has been found more than a week after it vanished but investigators believe it was diverted by someone with deep knowledge of the plane and of commercial navigation.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Saturday evidence pointed to a deliberate diversion of the flight, given the controlled way it was apparently turned around and flown far to the west of its original route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

A flight engineer is responsible for overseeing systems on a plane during flights to confirm they are working correctly and to make repairs if necessary. As an engineer specialising in executive jets, Khairul would not necessarily have all the knowledge needed to divert and fly a large jetliner.

Khairul had said he worked for a Swiss-based jet charter firm called Execujet Aviation Group, but the company declined to say whether it still employed him. In a picture posted on Khairul’s Facebook account in 2011, he identified himself as an employee of Execujet’s Malaysian operations.

“We can’t disclose anything. We want to protect the family’s privacy,” an official at the company’s Malaysian office said.

Khairul, a father of one daughter, had recently bought a house on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, and had more than 10 years experience as a flight engineer, his father Selamat Omar said. He declined to say whether he believed his son could have been involved in any foul play.

Selamat said he and other family members were supposed to visit Khairul’s new house this month. But Khairul had told his father on Thursday he had to go for a job in Beijing and that they would reschedule. That was the last time they spoke.

“Khairul was doing well in his job and was a good son. He would come visit us at least once a month,” Selamat said.

The pilot

PILOT Zaharie Ahmad Shah is one of the most experienced aviators at Malaysian Airlines, with 18,000 flight hours logged over more than two decades with the carrier.

The 53-year-old father of three and grandfather of one has become a prime focus of the investigation, in part because he has a flight simulator in his home.

Mr Shah’s Facebook page indicates he is a supporter of Malaysian opposition political party leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed for five years for sodomy the day before flight MH370 took off.

The charges are widely considered to be politically motivated.

Mr Shah’s friend, Peter Chong, who is a member of the opposition party, said he saw Mr Shah a week before the flight and that they had agreed to meet on his return to organise a shopping trip for poor children.

“If I [were] on a flight, I would choose Captain Zaharie,” he said. “He is dedicated to his job, he is a professional and he loves flying.”

Malaysia Airlines has said it did not believe Mr Shah would have sabotaged the plane.

A fellow Malaysia Airlines pilot 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 co-pilot

FARIQ Abdul Hamid graduated to flying the Boeing 777 just in time for the journey to Beijing on 8 March.

The 27-year-old had six years’ flying experience but was less familiar with that model of aircraft, according to officials.

Photographs have been published showing Mr Hamid with two young female passengers he had allowed to fly with him in the cockpit of a 2011 flight from Thailand to Malaysia.

The eldest of five children and son of a high-ranking civil servant, Mr Hamid was reportedly contemplating marriage. The head of a community mosque near his home in Kuala Lumpur described him as “good boy, a good Muslim, humble and quiet”.

Mosque leader Ahmad Sarafi Ali Asrah added: “His father still cries when he talks about Fariq. His mother too.”

The theories

AS THE mystery surrounding the disappearance of the passenger jet has grown, so too have the number of theories about what may have happened to it. Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the main areas of the investigation were “hijacking, sabotage, personal problems and psychological problems – that includes the ground staff, everybody”.

1. Hijacking – A passenger may have got into the cockpit and wrested control from the pilots. It would require significant knowledge of the aircraft to be able to switch off communications with the ground. The pilots might have continued to fly under duress.

The final words from the cockpit to air traffic controllers were “all right, good night”, but this was after the data communication system had been partially disabled. It is not clear whose voice was heard in that recording.

Air Force Maj Gen Affendi Buang said it would not be normal to state that everything was all right if the data device in front of him was disabled.

2. Sabotage – Investigators are also examining whether the plane was sabotaged. However, experts believe that if a problem had developed with the plane the pilots would have headed back to Kuala Lumpur rather than change course.

Reports of changing altitudes of the plane after communications were disabled could imply either technical problems or a human struggle for control.

South-east Asia’s homegrown Islamist militant groups, such as Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which carried out the Bali bombings in 2002, have been quiet in recent years after security forces either arrested or shot dead numerous members.

Experts said they doubted the remaining militants had the skills or capabilities to carry out a complex hijacking.

Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said: “JI has not been involved with violence in the region since 2007. The other groups that are active in Indonesia are all not very competent. I would be extremely surprised if any group from Indonesia, the Philippines or Malaysia would be directly involved.”

3. Personal or psychological problems – These have both been put forward as possible theories. Investigators said there was no suggestion the pilot and his co-pilot had specifically asked to fly together, ruling out co-ordination between the two of a possible plot. If they both diverted the plane, it might have been under duress, or it could have been that one was incapacitated and the other made a personal decision to fly the plane. One of them may have decided to deliberately crash the plane or take it to another country.

Possible political motives have been suggested for Mr Shah, an opposition party supporter. Suicide is also a possible theory, although there have been no reports of any suggested mental health concerns for either the pilot or the co-pilot.