Pilots’ Possible Role in Flight 370 Vanishing ‘Unthinkable’ to Friends

An unidentified woman with her face painted, depicting the flight of the missing Malaysia Airline, MH370
An unidentified woman with her face painted, depicting the flight of the missing Malaysia Airline, MH370

One was only a few years out of flight school and still living at home with his family, but he was getting serious about a girlfriend, another pilot, and talking about getting married.

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The other, a grandfather and veteran pilot widely respected by his colleagues, brimmed with enthusiasm for flying, cooking and home repair hobbies.

The two men, who sat at the controls of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 when it took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 8, led by nearly every measure ordinary lives revolving around family and work.

That is why even the suggestion that the captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and the first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, somehow had a hand in the disappearance of Flight 370 has been met with disbelief from friends, family members and colleagues. It is still a mystery what happened to the jetliner and the 239 people on board. But increasingly, the evidence shows that the disappearance was most likely not an accident, and that whoever changed the plane’s flight path and turned off its communications systems had expert knowledge of the aircraft.

And that has inevitably led investigators to look into the lives and backgrounds of the pilots.

Officials have not accused the pilots of responsibility and have emphasized that they are scouring the backgrounds of everyone on the flight. Further, if one or both of them intentionally diverted the plane from its scheduled route to Beijing, there appears to be no obvious motive.

Relatives, friends and colleagues have lined up in the pilots’ defense, saying that the mere suggestion of their involvement was unimaginable.

“Quite unthinkable,” Sivarasa Rasiah, a member of Parliament, said in an interview Monday.

Mr. Sivarasa said he got to know Mr. Zaharie when the pilot volunteered to work on his political campaign last year. “He was a very likable, very sociable kind of guy,” Mr. Sivarasa said. “He would not have actively, in any way, endangered the lives of his passengers.”

The pilots’ immediate family members have said little publicly about the case, resolutely maintaining their privacy. And officials have released scant information about the investigation of the men’s backgrounds.

But in interviews this week with relatives, friends and colleagues, a fuller picture has emerged — one absent any obvious indicators that might support a theory of the pilots’ involvement in a hijack plan.

Mr. Zaharie’s marriage appeared to be breaking up, according to a friend and colleague as well as Malaysian news reports, though he and his wife had continued to live together in a gated community in a western suburb of Kuala Lumpur. Friends and colleagues said he remained upbeat and continued to embrace his passion for flying, in and outside of his job at Malaysia Airlines.

Among Malaysia’s aviators, Mr. Zaharie had a reputation for professionalism and bonhomie, and was regarded by younger pilots as something of a mentor.

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“A very nice guy, passionate about aviation, and among the community of pilots, one of the most respected,” said a colleague in the industry who asked not to be named because his company had forbidden employees to comment on the case.

This camaraderie extended beyond his professional life to the broader community of aviation aficionados, and he became a lively and well-known participant in several online forums dedicated to flight simulation. He was so enthralled by flight simulation that he built himself a simulator in his home and would invite friends and fellow pilots over to play with it. (Investigators removed the simulator from his home over the weekend and said they were studying it for clues.)

Mr. Zaharie “was well known to many in the flight simulation community because he had developed an online presence in which he dedicated many hours of his time to promoting the enjoyment of flying generally, and flight simulation specifically,” Robert S. Randazzo, president of PMDG, which develops flight simulation software, wrote in the forum Avsim last week.

In the past couple of years, Mr. Zaharie had also started to become more engaged in the country’s roiling politics. In January 2013, he joined the People’s Justice Party, the group headed by Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s opposition leader, who was sentenced on March 7 to five years in prison on a sodomy conviction that his supporters said was politically motivated.

“He was concerned about events in the country, that’s why he joined us,” said Mr. Sivarasa, the member of Parliament, who is also a high-level official in the People’s Justice Party. “He obviously agreed with our stand of wanting to democratize this country.”

Peter Chong, a staff member for Mr. Sivarasa, said that Mr. Zaharie, his schedule permitting, would occasionally help out with community service projects and events run out of Mr. Sivarasa’s office, including open houses for poor constituents during Chinese New Year celebrations.

The younger pilot, Mr. Fariq, was less well known in Kuala Lumpur and on social media, but those close to him and his family have been equally protective of his reputation.

“They’re a quiet family, they don’t really mingle,” said Khairuddin bin Zakaria, who lives near Mr. Fariq’s family’s house in a middle-class neighborhood in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur.

Mr. Fariq’s romance with another pilot, a woman who attended the same flight training school, was apparently heading toward marriage, acquaintances said, though it was unclear if the two were engaged. The woman, a pilot with AirAsia, did not respond to requests for comment sent via her Facebook account.

In interviews, Mr. Fariq’s neighbors seemed at turns mystified, intrigued and annoyed by the steady news media presence outside the family’s house.

“They are under big pressure,” one neighbor, Hashim Hassan, said of the family. “So, please be fair.”

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