MH370 pilot ‘a gentle man, handy cook’

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IOL pic mar17 malaysia plane artwork Reuters Students gather to see an artwork, based on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, that was painted at a school in Makati City in Manila. According to the artists, the artwork is their way of expressing sympathy for the relatives of passengers on board the missing Boeing 777-200ER. Picture: Romeo Ranoco

Kuala Lumpur - The cockpit crew now under scrutiny over Malaysia's missing airliner are a politically active captain who enjoyed cooking and home improvements, and a young co-pilot said to be engaged to his flight-school sweetheart.

Malaysia says “deliberate action” in the cockpit led to the flight's disappearance, and police have searched the homes of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27.

But little has emerged to implicate either man.

Attention on Zaharie has focused on his active support for Malaysia's opposition and the fact that the engineering buff assembled his own home flight simulator.

Zaharie is a member of an opposition party headed by veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim and his Twitter account “follows” a number of top opposition politicians, though it contains no posts by Zaharie himself.

In a highly controversial case, Anwar was convicted of sodomy - illegal in Muslim Malaysia - just hours before MH370 took off. He could face five years in jail.

But those who knew Zaharie rejected media reports that he was deeply upset by the Anwar case.

Sivarasa Rasiah, an opposition member of Parliament for the Kuala Lumpur suburb where Zaharie lives, remembers the pilot's volunteer work on his campaign.

“He was one of hundreds, if not a thousand, who volunteered to campaign in the May (2013) elections and he did not know Anwar personally,” said Sivarasa.

“The claim that he is a (political) fanatic doesn't deserve a response,” said Peter Chong, Sivarasa's aide.

Chong said he met Zaharie about once a month for relaxed conversations on politics over teh tarik (a milky Malaysian tea drink).

Zaharie was so passionate about flying that he assembled his own flight simulator at home, which police have said they impounded and were examining.

But aviation commentators say it is not uncommon for a pilot to have a home simulator.

Malaysian media reports have quoted colleagues as calling Zaharie - a 33-year Malaysia Airlines veteran - a “superb” and highly respected pilot, while acquaintances remember a gentle man who was handy both in the kitchen and around the house.

Sivarasa called the pilot “a keen cook”. He said Zaharie gave him a gift of Malay rice dumplings that the pilot had made the last time they met in November.

“We also met at a post-election celebration where we did a karaoke number together. It was Hotel California,” he told AFP, referring to general elections last May.

Zaharie's YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/catalinapby1) features videos showing him cheerfully explaining how to fix an air conditioner, patch damaged windows, and other DIY projects.

Channels that he subscribes to include one on making balloon animals, Comedy Central and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Chong said Zaharie attended one of a series of political rallies led by Anwar around the country after the May 5 elections, to vent anger over suspicions that the vote was rigged.

The ruling coalition that has governed since 1957 barely clung to power.

Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, had his reputation called into question by a South African woman who accused him of inviting her to join him in the cockpit for a journey in 2011, in breach of security rules.

Malaysia Airlines said it was “shocked” by the reported security violation, but could not verify the claims.

But those who knew him have described the son of a top state civil servant as a mild-mannered young man with a bright piloting future who is reported to have been engaged to wed a woman he met in flight school nine years ago.

His fiancee, Captain Nadira Ramli, 26, flies for Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia - Malaysia Airlines' fierce rival - and is the daughter of a senior Malaysia Airlines pilot, local media reports said.

Fariq regularly visited his neighbourhood mosque outside Kuala Lumpur where he also attended occasional Islamic courses, said Ahmad Sharafi Ali Asrah, the mosque's imam or spiritual leader, who called him “a good boy”.

Fariq appeared in a CNN travel segment in February in which he helped fly a plane from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur.

It chronicled his transition to piloting the Boeing 777-200 after having completed training in a flight simulator.

CNN correspondent Richard Quest called Fariq's technique “textbook-perfect”, according to the network's website.

The government has called on the public not to “jump to conclusions” about the two men, saying they were not on record as asking to fly together on March 8. - AFP



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