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Flight 370: Did the Pilots Do It? [Updated]

It is clear that Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was hijacked by an experienced pilot who knew how to operate a Boeing 777. This report in the New York Times supports what was already an overwhelming conclusion:

The first turn to the west that diverted the missing Malaysia Airlines plane from its planned flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was carried out through a computer system that was most likely programmed by someone in the plane’s cockpit who was knowledgeable about airplane systems, according to senior American officials.

Instead of manually operating the plane’s controls, whoever altered Flight 370’s path typed seven or eight keystrokes into a computer on a knee-high pedestal between the captain and the first officer, according to officials. The Flight Management System, as the computer is known, directs the plane from point to point specified in the flight plan submitted before a flight. It is not clear whether the plane’s path was reprogrammed before or after it took off.

Suspicion has focused on pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and first officer Fariq Ab Hamid for one obvious reason: they were the only people on board the airline who, as far as is publicly known, knew how to fly it. Certainly the airplane could have been taken over by one or more Islamic terrorists, but it would have to be someone far better trained than those who carried out the September 11 attacks–someone at or close to the level of a commercial airline pilot. A list of the passengers on the flight has been made public, but little or no information about them is known. China has said that it conducted background checks on the Chinese nationals who were on board (around two-thirds of the passengers) and found no links to terrorist groups. That at least reduces the likelihood of Uighurs being responsible.

There is another possibility that I have not seen discussed: here in the U.S., it is common for airline employees to hitch rides on their airline’s flights when seats are available. Could there have been another Malaysia Airlines pilot “deadheading” to Beijing on Flight 370, perhaps one with links to extremist groups? I have seen no discussion of that possibility. Thus, while we cannot rule out the possibility that there was another skilled pilot on board the airplane, at present there is zero evidence to support that supposition.

Which brings us back to the pilot and co-pilot. As the only people on the airplane known to have the skill and experience demonstrated by the hijacker(s), they are the prime suspects. That said, nothing that has come out about Zaharie Ahmad Shah or Fariq Ab Hamid adds materially to the case against them. Shah had a flight simulator in his home? So what? His wife and children left home the day before Flight 370 took off? OK, but did they flee the country or go to visit grandparents? He was a supporter of a prominent Malaysian politician who opposed the current government? That cuts in the other direction; Shah supported a “normal” political party, not a terrorist group. As former El-Al security chief Isaac Yeffet said, Shah does not fit the profile of a terrorist.

Neither does first officer Hamid. He was 27 years old and engaged to be married. No one has described any connections with radical Islamic or other potentially terrorist groups. As with Shah, no one has brought forth any evidence to suggest that Hamid may have been suicidal. Attention has focused on Hamid because he allegedly spoke the last words from the airplane–”all right, good night”–at around the time the transponders were turned off. If it really was Hamid, and if the communication came after at least one of the transponders was switched off, it would suggest that Hamid was most likely the hijacker. But there has been confusion about the exact timing of the message, and it is not clear why officials at Malaysian Airlines say they think the voice was Hamid’s. Even if one assumes they could distinguish Hamid’s voice from Shah’s, it is not clear how they could confidently distinguish Hamid’s voice from that of an unknown hijacker.

There was no known connection between Shah and Hamid, and apparently they were randomly assigned to Flight 370. It is therefore extremely unlikely that both were involved in the hijacking. If one of the pilots was the culprit, it appears that he would have had to disable, in some way, the other pilot.

The case against the pilots, in short, is weak. But they will remain the prime suspects–really, the only suspects–unless and until it comes to light that there was someone else on board capable of flying the aircraft at a professional or near-professional level.

Meanwhile, the central mystery of Flight 370 remains: where is the airplane? Until we know where the airplane was flown, we can only speculate about why it was hijacked. Until we know why it was hijacked, we can only speculate about who did it. Finding the airplane may or may not solve the puzzle of what happened to it, and why; but until the airplane is found, any theory we can put forward will be speculative at best.

UPDATE: A pilot offers a seemingly plausible theory: there was an emergency on board, probably a fire; the pilot turned the airplane around to head for a nearby airport at Pulau Langkawi; the pilots were overcome before they arrived at that destination; and the airplane flew on, presumably in more or less a straight line, until it ran out of fuel somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

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