Is a flight simulator, and missing data, suspicious?

In the news, or lack thereof, surrounding the missing MH370, pundits and investigators have focused in part on the flight simulator owned by MH370 captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. As Adam Taylor put it in the Washington Post, “To all appearances, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the 53-year-old pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370, was obsessed with flying. He loved it so much that he even built a flight simulator in his own home.” Is that unusual in any way? Taylor notes that Shah's love of flying is coming under scrutiny and that data—or lack of data—found on the simulator may offer clues to what happened to the plane.

A lack of data may be particularly suspicious. As Demetri Sevastopulo puts it in the Financial Times, “Revealing the latest twist in a mystery that has sparked both enormous curiosity and many conspiracy theories across the world, Khalid Abu Bakar, Malaysia’s police chief, said on Wednesday that the data had been erased on February 3, just under five weeks before the ill-fated flight.”

Consequently, reports the Independent, “Experts from the FBI are trying to restore data that was deleted from the flight simulator found in the home of the pilot of missing Flight MH370, officials have said.”

Missing data may well raise suspicions, but what about the possession of a flight simulator? My view of “flight simulation”—let's say for a 6-hour trip from Boston to LAX—would be to set up a row of three coach seats in my office, with me in the center and oversized mannequins occupying the seats to my left and right. My laptop perched on a flimsy fold-down tray table. The laptop would be plugged into a most likely inoperable electrical outlet below my seat—and for good measure there would be a seatback in front of me that would quickly decline at random and inopportune moments, damaging my laptop's display.

I am not sure the pilots are having much more fun than I am, and when they complete their flight, do they really want to go home and simulate the whole six-hour process over again?

Apparently, many do. In the New York Times, Kate Murphy writes, “No one knows Mr. Shah’s motivation, of course, but he represents just one of hundreds of thousands of virtual aviation enthusiasts. They grip yokes and advance throttles in their spare bedrooms and basements, virtually flying everything from Piper Cubs to the Concorde.”

She continues, “They get clearances and vectoring from fellow hobbyists acting as air traffic controllers who reference real waypoints in real airspace, adhering to the same stringent rules and procedures that govern actual aviation.”

Many professional pilots turn out to be active participants. Murphy quotes Justin Friedland, a former producer for ABC News turned real estate agent who has logged 1,426 hours as a virtual pilot and 758 hours as a virtual controller, as saying, “There’s a fair amount of professional pilots and air traffic controllers who get involved because aviation is their passion and they want to encourage others.”

More power to them. Many of us bring our work home with us, or have hobbies related to our professional activities. That shouldn't be cause for suspicion.

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