Missing Flight Simulator Data Probed In Malaysia Flight 370 Disappearance

By: Michael Pearson and Pamela Brown (CNN)--
By: Michael Pearson and Pamela Brown (CNN)--
Investigators looking at the flight simulator taken from the home of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah have discovered that some data had been deleted.

USS Kidd joins USS Pinckney in Search Efforts of Flight MH370. Gulf of Thailand (NNS) -- Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd (DDG 100) has joined USS Pinckney (DDG 91) in the search efforts of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, March 10. Kidd brings the same Arleigh-Burke Class capabilities as Pinckney with its two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters which are designed for search and rescue, as well as anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, surveillance, communications relay, naval gunfire support and logistics support. The helicopters can fly a maximum of 180 knots with a ceiling of 13,000 ft., have a maximum range of 245 nautical miles and the capability to conduct searches at night using its Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) camera. Kidd, like Pinckney, was conducting training and maritime security operations in international waters in the South China Sea before being sent to assist in the search efforts. Both ships have crews of more than 300 Sailors each and are multi-mission ships designed to operate independently or with an associated strike group. The US Navy still has one maritime patrol aircraft, a P-3C Orion from the Grey Knights of Patrol Squadron 46 (VP-46), on station flying from Subang Jaya, Malaysia. The two destroyers departed Naval Base San Diego Jan. 7 on independent deployments to the Western Pacific Ocean.

(CNN) -- Investigators looking at the flight simulator taken from the home of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Captain 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."

Interim 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 deleted data, 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.

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 former U.S. Federal Aviation Administration official Mary Schiavo.

"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.

One expert said desktop pilots don't usually delete such files because they are small and often kept to gauge progress, said Jay Leboff, owner of HotSeat, a simulator manufacturer.

"It would be suspicious to me, because there's no need to do it," he said.

If the files have not been overwritten by new data, retrieving them probably would be trivial for a computer expert, said Joseph Caruso, CEO of Global Digital Forensics. And even if they are, tools exist to help retrieve partial files that could be of use to investigators, he said.

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

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 hotel where media covering the search are staying.

"We have been here for 10 days, no single piece of information," one woman said. "We need media from the entire world (to) help us find our lost families, and find the MH370 plane."

Malaysian authorities appeared to hustle the women away.

In a statement, Hishammuddin said Malaysian authorities "regret the scenes at this afternoon's press conference."

"One can only imagine the anguish they are going through," he said of the families. "Malaysia is doing everything in its power to find MH370 and hopefully bring some degree of closure for those whose family members are missing."

An abrupt change in direction

The disappearance continues to intrigue the public and frustrate officials, who have turned up no sign of the plane despite the involvement of teams from 26 nations.

On Tuesday, a law enforcement official told CNN that the aircraft's first major change of course -- an abrupt westward turn that took the plane off its route to China and back across the Malay Peninsula -- was almost certainly programmed by somebody in the cockpit.

The change was entered into the plane's system at least 12 minutes before a person in the cockpit, believed to be the co-pilot, signed off to air traffic controllers.

Some experts said the change in direction could have been part of an alternate flight plan programmed in advance in case of emergency; others suggested it could show something more nefarious was afoot.

But Hishammuddin said Wednesday that "there is no additional waypoint on MH370's documented flight plan, which depicts normal routing all the way to Beijing."

The Thai military, meanwhile, said it had spotted the plane turning west toward the Strait of Malacca early on March 8. That supports the analysis of Malaysian military radar that has the plane flying out over the Strait of Malacca and into the Indian Ocean.

But it didn't make it any clearer where the plane went next. Authorities say information from satellites suggests the plane kept flying for about six hours after it was last detected by Malaysian military radar.

Malaysian authorities, who are coordinating the search, say the available evidence suggests the missing plane flew off course in a deliberate act by someone who knew what they were doing.

Background checks

Investigators are looking into the background of all 239 passengers and crew members on board the plane, as well as its ground crew, Malaysian officials have said. They've received background checks on all nations with passengers on board with the exception of Russia and Ukraine, Hussein said.

So far, no information of significance has been found about any passengers, Hishammuddin said.

China says it has found nothing suspicious during background checks on its citizens on the flight -- a large majority of the plane's passengers.

Particular attention has focused on the pilot and first officer on Flight 370, but authorities are yet to come up with any evidence explaining why either of them would have taken the jetliner off course.

And some experts have warned against hastily jumping to conclusions about the role of the pilots.

"I've worked on many cases were the pilots were suspect, and it turned out to be a mechanical and horrible problem," said Schiavo, the former FAA official, who's also a CNN aviation analyst. "And I have a saying myself: Sometimes, an erratic flight path is heroism, not terrorism."

Ticking clock

Searchers are racing the clock in their efforts to find the plane and its flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders. The devices have batteries designed to send out pings for 30 days. That leaves 18 days until the batteries are expected to run out.

The task is being complicated by the scope of the search area, as well as the depth of some of the waters being searched -- up to 23,000 feet (7,000 meters).

Searchers trying to find and retrieve wreckage and bodies from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, had to use unmanned submarines.

It took nearly two years to find the bulk of the wreckage, including the flight data recorders, in waters nearly 12,000 feet deep. It took even longer to determine what happened to the plane.

Posted by Greg Palmer


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