KUALA LUMPUR — Nearly two-and-a-half-years after the disappearance of flight MH370, the sister of the chief pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah still “thinks of him the first thing in the morning and cries for him the last thing at night.”
Sakinab Shah struggles to control her emotions as she talks about her brother, who was in charge of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 when it disappeared from radar screens in the early morning of March 8, 2014.
Even though an investigation by Malaysian police found no evidence that Zaharie was suffering any personal or financial stresses at the time, his sister says that he remains a “scapegoat” and that she has to defend him.
‘The FBI did their tests’
Sakinab spoke to CNN from her home in Kuala Lumpur days after a piece in New York Magazine claimed that new evidence supporting the theory that pilot suicide caused the plane’s disappearance.
The magazine quoted a leaked document from an FBI investigation that showed deleted files had been recovered from Zaharie’s home-built flight simulator.
They reportedly revealed he had plotted a course into the deep southern Indian Ocean — a course that closely matched the final flight MH370 is thought to have taken. Investigators said the simulator files had been created just weeks before the jet disappeared, according to the document.
But Zaharie’s sister dismisses the claim, saying it was a “fabrication.”
“They did their tests in 2014, there was nothing incriminating in his activities,” she says.
“The FBI did their tests … if there was anything, the police would be the first people to know. That’s why this story has been dismissed.”
“He’s been made a scapegoat from the beginning. This latest accusation? Oh my God. Heaven forbid.”
Sakinab said that, according to Zaharie’s wife and children, the simulator had not been working for at least a year before MH370’s final flight. The family could not be reached for comment.
Malaysian authorities also refused repeated requests to comment on the New York Magazine report.
But Australian authorities say reports about the simulator have jumped to conclusions. Data from the simulator doesn’t reveal anything about what happened aboard MH370, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said. It only shows a “possibility” of planning and provides a “piece of information,” Transport Minister Darren Chester said.
‘I knew him inside out’
Despite their 17-year difference in age, there is no doubting the strength of the bond between Sakinhab and her younger brother, who she calls Ari.
“Even when he became a grandfather I still looked upon Ari as my own child, my own son and whatever problems he encountered I would be the first he would come to,” she says.
“I knew him like the back of my hand. I knew him inside out.”
Asked to describe her brother, Sakinab pauses, thinking deeply, before saying he was “very loving, wonderfully considerate and generous. A very, very generous younger brother — in fact most generous one of our family.”
Zaharie was the second-youngest of nine children, he won a scholarship to university but instead chose to pursue a career in aviation.
“He was a young boy, 14 or 15, when he fell in love with airplanes,” Sakinab says.
Her brother completed his pilot’s license in the Philippines and in 1981 joined Malaysian Air Systems (MAS), where he notched up more than 18,000 hours flying time.
Sakinab says the last time she saw him was at a family lunch a couple of weeks before the flight disappeared
“He was his normal self. If you met him you would like him. Very boisterous, fun-loving guy, he was teasing his nieces and offering his opinions. Among us he was the most opinionated.”
‘I was screaming’
On the day of MH370’s disappearance, Sakinab learned it was her brother’s plane when she saw his photo on television.
“I was screaming. I was all alone in the house. I was screaming ‘no, no, Ari, Ari.’ He’d been flying for over 30 years, he was so senior, he knew what he was doing.”
Initially the family avoided talking to the press, but as speculation over the plane’s disappearance and the involvement of the pilots grew, Sakinab decided she must defend her brother. The family posted three short films about him on YouTube.
“There was so much talk, so many accusations I thought we should tell the world what he was like. We wanted to show he was no crackpot. He was a normal family man, normal father, grandfather, pilot, and instructor.”
She also dismissed claims that Zaharie and his wife Faiza Khanum had severe marital problems, and may have been in the process of divorcing.
“They had 30 years and three children and they are still together. I would not deny that off and on they had problems. But not to the point that would cause him to want to commit this crime.”
She also said there were no financial problems in the family and that, although a supporter of jailed Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, his support of Anwar’s party was a “momentary fancy.”
While she still doesn’t know what’s happened to her brother, Sakinab says she has accepted that the plane must have crashed and she and her family have said their goodbyes to the boy they once called Ari.
“But he’s always here. I speak about him in present tenses. It’s so surreal that he’s gone.”
“And so hard.”