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MH 370 pilot: Home flight simulator seized in hope of clues

By Peter Shadbolt, for CNN
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Wed March 19, 2014
  • MH370 pilot's home flight simulator seized as part of investigation
  • Police examining data in hope it will yield some clues as to the fate of missing plane
  • Flight simulators are commonly used by pilots in their downtime
  • Shah's equipment unlikely to help him learn complex or difficult maneuvers

(CNN) -- Like an over-keen online gamer, there appears nothing in Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah's post on a flight simulator forum that suggests anything more untoward than exaggerated geekiness.

"Elo guys, zaharie here," says the post on a simulator forum. "Awesome view on 3 panasonic 32 in. LCD HDMI and and 3 touchscreen Dell 21 inches for main (MCP), center pedestal, overhead panel.

"Time to take to the next level of simulation. Motion! looking for buddies to share this passion.

"Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah, BOEING 777 MALAYSIA AIRLINES."

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However, Malaysian police this week confiscated the flight simulator and reassembled it at Bukit Aman police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, hoping it could reveal some clues as to the whereabouts of the plane.

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While police have yet to release any information on its contents, speculation has been rife that its program could reveal anything from a hijacking dry run to practicing how to fly the aircraft undetected.

For many in the airline industry, however, the fact that Captain Zaharie had an off-the-shelf -- albeit elaborate -- flight simulator at home is nothing out of the ordinary.

"Realistically speaking, having a simulator means absolutely nothing," Julian D'Arcy, the flight operations and training manager at Pacific Simulators, told CNN. "The only reason I can see that the simulator is under investigation is just to see if he happened to fly that route on his simulator history which might point to where it is.

"It'd be the same if he just had a Nintendo -- it makes no sense."

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Operating for fun

He said that while Zaharie's flight simulator might look complex to the uninitiated, its plastic pedals and desktop steering yoke could be bought at any gaming store or electronics shop.

"Most pilots would have some version of a Microsoft flight simulator on their home computers -- you can practice instrument flying and systems knowledge, they're great for that, but you can't teach someone to fly a plane from scratch."

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Pilots, he said, often use flight simulators in their spare time, for their own satisfaction, to improve their flight skills and to contribute to an online community of simulation enthusiasts.

"Aviation is one of those things you're born with -- a lot of people do it from when they're little kids. Pilots (operate simulators) for fun and like to the help the community.

"I know a lot of pilots, when they get home will take a remote-control helicopter out of their car boot and fly it around their backyard. It's in the blood -- it's not so much a job as a life."

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Aviation expert Jim Tilmon says the simulator is a useful tool for pilots: "I didn't read anything into it in the beginning, because some pilots do like to have that to tinker with and if they're going to be flying the next month into an airport they haven't been in before, they can program that and get some experience in doing that and practice.

"But then I rethought it," he adds. "And I wondered if this pilot really had some plan in mind about what it was going to be that was going to deviate from all the things that he had been taught, for example duck under the radar and fly at 500 feet off the ground or whatever else. He would need to practice. And he's got the equipment to do that with."

Malaysia's Transport Ministry said in a statement that police had started their investigation on all the crew of the missing Boeing 777-200ER aircraft, including the pilot and co-pilot, as well as ground staff who had handled the plane.

On Monday authorities said Malaysian flight engineer Mohammed Khairul Amri Selamat, 29, who was a passenger on MH370, was being investigated as officials probe anyone on board who had aviation skills.

Most pilots would have some version of a Microsoft flight simulator on their home computers.
Julian D'Arcy, Pacific Simulators

His father, Selamat Bin Omar, told CNN he was confident his son was not involved in the disappearance of the flight.

"They are welcome to investigate me and my family," he said. "He went Beijing to repair a plane and was going to bring it back here."

An airline industry source who regularly flies Boeing aircraft said the flight simulator was unlikely to reveal many clues.

"The idea that he was using a home simulator as a means to train himself to hijack the plane is ludicrous," he said. "Plenty of aviation enthusiasts have 'sims' at home.

"Pilots don't necessarily have them because they fly all the time -- it might be like a journalist writing an article for fun in his spare time -- but I guess if its your passion maybe that's what you'd do."

He said it was unlikely the simulator would be used, as has been speculated, to test run a landing at an undetected airstrip.

"Really, if he is an airline pilot like the rest of us, he already has that skillset -- he doesn't need a simulator to practice.

"His little home sim isn't going to train him to land on a smaller runway."

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