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Missing plane pilot’s simulator and phone-call mysteries

March 24, 2014 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59As investigations into missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 continue, determination is growing in the world airline and travel industries that such a mystery must never happen again.

Malaysian police are still examining a flight simulator they seized last week from MH370 Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s home in an upscale Kuala Lumpur suburb. Games he was running included the Microsoft “Flight Simulator” series and the latest “X-plane” title, reports state.

There is nothing to indicate that the captain was behind the plane’s disappearance, but Malaysian investigators have asked the FBI for help with data recovery after finding that some data had been deleted on 3 February 2014. The flight went missing about a month later, on 8 March 2014.

X-plane 10 bills itself online as “the world’s most advanced flight simulator. For Mac, Windows, and Linux”.

Investigators are interested in X-plane 10 because it was reportedly the latest thing Zaharie bought for his simulator, which he spent some time building. It features emergency and combat situations, experts say.

In a separate development, investigators are looking at a phone call Zaharie is said to have made from the cockpit before take-off, raising fears about his motives.

Zaharie’s phone records reportedly reveal he made a two-minute phone call to a mystery woman who used a mobile phone number obtained under a false identity, Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper has revealed.

Reports say the phone had been bought “very recently” by someone who gave a woman’s name but was using a false identity, the report said. Buying pre-paid SIMs in that way is not unusual in Malaysia, given the tense political situation there. Zaharie is apparently an active member of Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party, which opposes, democratically, the current Malaysian government.

Meanwhile, whatever the causes of the plane’s loss, there’s a growing sentiment that such a mystery must never be allowed to happen again. It is bad enough to lose an aircraft – and efforts must be renewed to make cockpits impregnable – but to have a plane vanish into thin air is intolerable.

Revelations that two passengers boarded the plane on false passports hoisted a red flag from the outset. Airport security and passport technology is likely to be tightened.

An alarming disclosure came last week with the daunting news that Malaysia Airlines didn’t invest in a simple computer upgrade that would have provided critical information to help find its missing airliner.

A report in the Washington Post said the upgrade, which costs about USD 10 per flight, wholesale, “would have provided investigators with the direction, speed and altitude of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 even after other communications from the plane went dark”.

The paper reported that a similar computer upgrade supplied data to investigators into the 2009 Air France crash that quickly narrowed the search to an area of about 100 square kilometres in the Atlantic Ocean. Those investigators found floating evidence of the crash within five days – the sort of evidence planes are now searching for in the Indian Ocean following the MH370 disappearance. It has not been possible to narrow the MH370 search area so precisely.

Had the upgrade for a system called Swift been installed in the MAS plane, “it would have continued to send flight data by satellite even after signals from the plane’s transponder and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) went dead”, the paper reported.

That sort of technology is likely to become more widespread – if not compulsory.

The worst outcome would be that no part of the plane is found, meaning the flight has vanished without trace in the greatest aviation mystery of all time.

Written by Peter Needham

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