Investigators looking at the flight simulator taken from the home of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah have discovered that some data had been deleted from it, Malaysia’s acting transportation minister said Wednesday.
What the revelation means is unclear. It could be another dead end in an investigation that has been full of them so far, or it could provide further evidence for the theory that one or more of the flight crew may have been involved in the plane’s disappearance 12 days ago.
“It may not tell us anything. It’s a step in the process,” one U.S. law enforcement source told CNN. “It could be a very insignificant detail in the process.”
Investigators have been looking into the background of all 239 passengers and crew members aboard the plane that vanished in the early morning hours of March 8 while en route from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, China.
Particular attention has focused on the pilot and first officer on Flight 370, but authorities have yet to come up with any evidence explaining why either of them would have taken the jetliner off course.
Acting Transportation Secretary Hishammuddin Hussein didn’t say what had been deleted, but simulation programs can store data from previous sessions for later playback. He also did not say who might have deleted the data.
Specialists are examining the simulator in hopes of recovering the data that was deleted, Hishammuddin said.
Among them are experts at the FBI’s forensics lab in Quantico, Virginia, who are examining a copy of the simulator’s hard drive, as well as a copy of the hard drive from the computer of co-pilot Fariq Ab Hamid, law enforcement sources told CNN.
The FBI examination of the computer drives involves sorting through a large volume of data, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation.
“It is going to take some period of time, but we are analyzing it with a great degree of urgency. It is prioritized right at the top because the world is trying to figure this out,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Deleted files from Shah’s simulator could reveal it had been used to practice diverting the plane and flying it to an unfamiliar airport, experts said. But even if investigators retrieve past simulations showing that Zaharie practiced flying to seemingly odd locations, that doesn’t necessarily indicate evidence of anything nefarious, said Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“You put in strange airports and try to land there, just to see if you can do it,” said Schiavo, adding that she sometimes does just that on the flight simulation program on her home computer.
‘Grasping at straws’
President Barack Obama called the search for Flight 370 “a top priority,” telling KSDK-TV of St. Louis on Wednesday that the United States will keep working on it.
“We have put every resource that we have available at the disposal of the search process,” he said.
But beyond help with the computer drives, the Malaysian government has not put in a formal request for additional FBI help overseas, according to the senior U.S. official.
“We have made it clear we are ready to provide help whenever they need it,” the official said. “We are grasping at straws. No one is running on anything white hot.”
News of the missing files came as the search for Flight 370 neared its 13th day.
Although the search area spans a vast area of nearly 3 million square miles, a U.S. government official familiar with the investigation said the plane is most likely somewhere on the southern end of the search area.
“This is an area out of normal shipping lanes, out of any commercial flight patterns, with few fishing boats, and there are no islands,” the official said, warning that the search could well last “weeks and not days.”
The official’s comments echo earlier analysis by U.S. officials saying the most likely location for the missing aircraft is on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
Angry families want answers
The lack of progress has angered and frustrated families, who have accused Malaysian officials of withholding information.
Some family members staged a protest at the Kuala Lumpur hotel where media covering the search are staying. Their efforts were cut short by security guards who removed them through a crush of reporters, dragging one as she screamed.