The captain of a missing Malaysian jet is said to be an engineering buff who assembled his own flight simulator, while friends of the co-pilot are defending his reputation after one report portrayed him as a cockpit Casanova.
Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared six days ago and an international search and rescue effort in waters around Southeast Asia has failed to find a shred of evidence in one of the biggest aviation mysteries in history.
With little solid information to go on, authorities are investigating all 227 passengers and 12 crew for possible sabotage, although they stress no such evidence has come to light.
But it has brought Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and his First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, under scrutiny.
An Australian television report made waves this week by broadcasting an interview with a young South African woman who said Fariq and another pilot colleague invited them into the cockpit of a flight he co-piloted from Phuket, Thailand to Kuala Lumpur in 2011.
Malaysia Airlines said it was “shocked” by the reported security violation, but that it could not verify the claims.
Fariq, who joined the airline at the age of 20, studied piloting at a flight school on the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi.
The son of a high-ranking official in the public works department of a Malaysian state, he is a mild-mannered “good boy” who regularly visited his neighbourhood mosque outside Kuala Lumpur, said the mosque’s imam, or spiritual leader.
Fariq also attended occasional Islamic courses, said Ahmad Sharafi Ali Asrah.
He rejected the account of the supposed cockpit security breach.
“This story doesn’t make sense and I feel it’s just an effort to discredit Fariq or the airlines,” Ahmad Sharafi said.
“He is a good boy and keeps a low profile.”
The far more seasoned Zaharie joined MAS in 1981 and had logged 18,365 hours of flying time.
Online tributes in Malaysia portray a man so fond of flying that he assembled his own flight simulator so that he could indulge his passion at home.
The webpage, which has garnered more than 400 comments largely from well-wishers, shows pictures of the complex set-up including Zaharie posing in front of it.
Zaharie also has a YouTube channel to which he has uploaded videos showing him cheerfully explaining how to fix an air-conditioner, patch damaged windows, and other DIY projects.
Malaysian media reports have quoted colleagues as calling Zaharie a “superb pilot”, who also served as an examiner, authorised by the Malaysian Civil Aviation Department, to conduct simulator tests for pilots.