Missing jet’s pilots under scrutiny amid fears of hijacking tragedy

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The pilots of the missing Malaysia Airlines passenger jet were a middle-aged family man passionate enough about flying to build his own simulator and a 27-year-old contemplating marriage who had just graduated to the cockpit of the Boeing 777.

As speculation intensified that the plane might have been hijacked by someone with aviation skills, a picture began to emerge of the two men whose actions will be a focus of the investigation.

Police have said they are looking at the psychological background of the pilots, their family life and connections as one line of inquiry into flight MH370’s disappearance, but there is no evidence linking them to any wrongdoing.

The search for the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board has been widened westward from the Gulf of Thailand toward the Indian Ocean. A United States official has said the plane sent signals to a satellite for about four hours after it lost radar contact a week ago. The airliner vanished less than an hour into a six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early on March 8.

Online, Malaysians have rushed to defend the reputations of the pilots, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and Fariq Abdul Hamid. Both men were described to the Associated Press as respectable and community-minded. Details of their backgrounds have emerged from interviews with neighbours, Malaysia Airlines staff, a religious leader and from social networks and news reports in Malaysia and Australia.

Mr Hamid is a “good boy, a good Muslim, humble and quiet”, said Ahmad Sarafi Ali Asrah, the head of a community mosque close to the pilot’s two-storey home in a middle-class area on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

He described Mr Hamid’s parents as distraught and the community solidly behind them, supporting the family in prayers.

“His father still cries when he talks about Fariq. His mother too,” said Mr Asrah.

Mr Hamid, the son of a high-ranking civil servant in Selangor state, joined Malaysia Airlines in 2007. With just 2,763 hours of flight experience he had only recently started co-piloting the sophisticated Boeing 777.

Neighbour Ayop Jantan said he had heard that Mr Hamid was engaged and planning his wedding. The eldest of five children, his professional achievements were a source of pride for his father, said Mr Jantan.

Mr Hamid’s superior, Mr Shah, joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981 and has more than 18,000 flight hours.

His Facebook page shows an avid aviation enthusiast, who flew remote-controlled aircraft, posting pictures of his collection which included a lightweight twin-engine helicopter and an amphibious aircraft.

Yet both men have quirks which reveal a more colourful side to their pilot personas. Mr Shah posted attention-grabbing pictures online of a flight simulator he had built for his home using three large computer monitors and other accessories.

Mr Hamid has drawn greatest scrutiny after the revelation that he and another pilot invited two women boarding their aircraft to sit in the cockpit for a flight from Phuket, Thailand, to Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

During the flight, the pilots smoked and flirted, one of the women, South African Jonti Roos, said in an interview broadcast by Australia’s Nine Network.