Last week, we covered how the search for Malaysia Flight MH370 is set to end in the near future, as the last of the 46,300 square-mile search area is due to be mapped shortly. With less than 10% of the search area left still to examine, the chances of finding the plane within its boundaries is very small. But a crucial new piece of information, not previously known, is that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, appears to have conducted a simulated suicide flight scenario that ended with an aircraft disappearing in the Indian Ocean.
The evidence for the simulation run was uncovered in March 2014, when Malaysian officials gave the FBI the hard drives Shah used as part of an “elaborate” flight simulator in his home. The FBI was able to recover six deleted data points that had been stored in Microsoft Flight Simulator X. The FBI document (as reported by New York magazine) reads:
These deleted points show a flight plan that departed Kuala Lumpur, headed northwest over the Malacca Strait, then banked and headed out over the Indian Ocean. Once the fuel tanks were exhausted, the aircraft would’ve plunged into the sea. While rumors that the captain may have been involved have always run around the Internet, there are several factors to note here.
First, while Shah’s flight simulator contained records that he’d plotted such a course, the path MH370 is believed to have followed based on analysis of its satellite pings does not match the route Shah planned in simulation. In the image below, Shah’s simulated flight is in red, while the believed path of the aircraft is in yellow.
Second, Shah’s home and work life were both positive to the best knowledge of anyone around him. He had suffered no recent losses, had no history of depression, and no expressed interest in religious or political extremism. The vast majority of terrorists leave some record of their activities, even if such records only emerge posthumously. No evidence linking Shah to any religious or political extremists has ever been found. And a single deleted flight path, absent any kind of documentation, doesn’t prove anything. (I must note that I’d be mortified if I ever ran for city government and someone submitted my activities on SimCity as evidence against me. I have a known weakness for nuclear power plants, giant monsters, and earthquakes.)
As Popular Mechanics discusses, one reason the search teams chose to focus where they did is because Shah’s southern suicide route does share general characteristics with the route MH370 is believed to have taken. It also complicates the situation. Virtually all of our assumptions about the aircraft’s final moments rest on the idea that it hit the water very near to the time when it lost power.
If it didn’t — if Shah was conscious and able to glide the craft — it would mean the aircraft could be almost anywhere. The problem is, our analysis of where the aircraft was depended heavily on assumptions about its altitude, trajectory, and autopilot status. A conscious pilot also raises a host of other questions. If Shah hijacked the plane, what happened to its crew? Who would have had potential access to an emergency radio and other means of signaling the ground, as well as full oxygen masks and oxygen bottles? While I don’t present this Quora post as providing guaranteed data, the general consensus seems to be that while a pilot could potentially take action to vent cabin pressure and compromise the aircraft, doing so while simultaneously incapacitating the crew and guaranteeing he himself remained conscious would have been difficult, if not impossible. If Shah took actions that resulted in his own incapacitation or death, that means the plane wouldn’t have had a pilot to land it six hours later, which means the search area should’ve still been accurate.
Knowing that Shah plotted a suicide course on a flight simulator is interesting evidence that suggests he might have taken his own life. But the complete lack of corroborating evidence means it could also be little more than coincidence. Without the plane — and possibly even with it — we’ll never know.