Missing co-pilot 'smoked with us in cockpit'

Last updated 16:12 12/03/2014
Fairfax Australia

Malaysia Airlines co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid's conduct is brought into question.

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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds satellite images as he speaks about the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 26.

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Malaysia Airlines is investigating reports the co-pilot of a missing plane invited passengers to the cockpit on a prior flight.

Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and Fariq Abdul Hamid, the first officer, were piloting flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard on Saturday when the jet vanished.

In a statement, Malaysia Airlines said it was "shocked by the allegations" that Fariq hosted guests on the flight deck in 2011.

The company said it hadn't confirmed the validity of the photos that Australia's A Current Affair programme said showed Fariq with passengers. However, Malaysia Airlines said it was taking the claims "very seriously".

The pictures were allegedly taken on a 2011 flight between Kuala Lumpur and Phuket, Thailand.

On the show, a passenger identified as Jonti Roos said she and a female travelling companion were invited into the cockpit. Roos told The Wall Street Journal that the invite came while they were waiting to board the plane.

Roos said she and her friend were allowed to stay in the cockpit during the entire one-hour flight. She said the arrangement did not seem unusual to the plane's crew.

Hamid and the other pilot talked to the women, smoked and posed for photos during the flight, she said.

"Throughout the entire flight they were talking to us, and they were actually smoking throughout the flight," Roos said.

As investigators continued to search for the missing jet, the report from the programme raised questions about Fariq's judgment, said Richard Bloom, director of Terrorism and Security Studies at the Prescott, Arizona, campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Inviting passengers into the cockpit is "out of bounds for all airlines", Bloom said. "Is it possible? Sure."

He said just because Fariq, 27, may have invited passengers to the flight deck in the past didn't mean that had any bearing on Flight 370's disappearance.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, passengers have been barred from cockpits on international flights. Malaysia Air's policy states that flight deck doors must be electronically locked and can be opened only from the inside.

All of its planes have cameras to identify people outside the cockpit, according to the carrier's media center.

Fariq, who joined the airline in 2007, was filmed last month by a crew from CNN Business Traveler executing what reporter Richard Quest called a perfect landing of a Boeing 777-200, the same model of the twin-aisle workhorse now missing. An online tribute page to the pilots shows a photo of Fariq in the cockpit that day, smiling.

Fariq graduated from the Langkawi Aerospace Flying Academy, according to an interview with his brother by the Malaysian newspaper New Sunday Times. He was the eldest of five siblings, the newspaper said. The cover photo on his Facebook page depicts pilot's wings with Malaysia Air's insignia.

Fariq's grandmother, identified as Halimah Abdul Rahman, said he is "a good son, obedient, respect the elders and a pious man", according to a posting on a tribute website.

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"It's not unusual to have such a young pilot on a 777," said Shukor Yusof, an analyst at Standard & Poor's in Singapore. "You usually have a captain who is really senior who has many hours under his belt and you have a junior guy. That's part of the learning process in many airlines."

Captain Zaharie joined the carrier in 1981 and logged 18,365 flying hours, according to Malaysia Air. That's similar to what a US pilot would need to have before being assigned the command of a wide-body craft like the 777, said Kit Darby of Kit Darby Aviation Consulting in Peachtree City, Georgia.

"My understanding is he was widely respected and loved the 777," said Richard Healing, a former National Transportation Safety Board member.

"He knew every nook and cranny and every possible thing that could go wrong with that aircraft. Which tells you if there was any way to save that airplane, this would be the guy to save it, depending on what went wrong and whether he was disabled."

Zaharie's enthusiasm for the Boeing jetliner extends beyond his profession. The captain built his own flight simulator using a computer programme, steering pedals, a yoke and touch screens for flight controls, according to an online post on a community of simulator enthusiasts. Many of his Facebook friends work at Malaysia Air.

Some of them have changed their cover pictures to images of text with words of support, including "Pray for MH370" and "Hope".

Zaharie also flies remote-controlled aircraft such as a Bell Helicopter 222 and an amphibious plane, according to the tribute website. His engineering interest stretches beyond flying, with YouTube videos posted to his account showing viewers how to make their air conditioners more efficient.

After about four days of fruitless efforts in the Gulf of Thailand, search teams have broadened their hunt to the South China Sea and Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia.

The authorities are looking at the possibility that the aircraft tried to turn back to Subang, near the capital Kuala Lumpur, the airline said in a statement.

Two passengers on the Malaysia Air flight used stolen passports to get aboard, fuelling speculation the plane had disappeared because of terrorism. Malaysian authorities and Interpol said that the two had been identified as Iranians who had no links to terror groups.

Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, got on board using an Austrian passport and aimed to migrate to Germany, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said in Kuala Lumpur. The second man is Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, Interpol Secretary General Ron Noble said in Lyon, France.

- Bloomberg News

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