Malaysia turns to FBI for help in plane inquiry

SEPANG, Malaysia — The Malaysian authorities have asked the FBI to help retrieve deleted computer data from a homemade flight simulator belonging to the captain of the Malaysia Airlines jet that vanished nearly two weeks ago, their first request for high-level US assistance in solving the mystery of the missing plane.

As that part of the inquiry unfolded, the authorities in Australia said Thursday that satellites had spotted an object, or objects, that might be connected to the plane.

Malaysian and US investigators are homing in on the pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and his first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, although they have not excluded different possibilities.


“It’s all focused on the pilots,” said a senior US law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his access to information about the investigation. “We, and they, have done everything we could on the passengers and haven’t found a thing.”

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The FBI will relay the contents of the simulator’s hard drive to agents and analysts in the United States who specialize in retrieving deleted computer files.

“Right now, it’s the best chance we have of finding something,” the senior law enforcement official said.

Unless the pilot used very sophisticated technology to erase files, he added, the FBI will most likely be able to recover them.

More than two dozen nations are searching for any trace of the missing airliner, a challenge that has seemed to grow more complicated and more contentious with each passing day.


But early Thursday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia told his country’s Parliament that satellites had detected something in the south Indian Ocean that might be related to the missing plane. Four military search planes were dispatched.

One of the objects spotted by satellite imagery had a dimension of 82 feet and the other one was smaller. There could be other objects in waters nearby in the area that’s a four-hour flight from Australia’s southwestern coast, said John Young, manager of Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division.

‘‘This is a lead, it’s probably the best lead we have right now,’’ said Young, while cautioning that the objects could also be seaborne debris along a key shipping route where containers periodically fall off cargo vessels.

He said that satellite images ‘‘do not always turn out to be related to the search even if they look good, so we will hold our views on that until they are sighted close-up.’’

Commander William J. Marks, the spokesman for the US Navy Seventh Fleet, which has helped oversee the US military contribution to the search, said in an e-mail Thursday that he had not heard word of finding any objects possibly from the aircraft.


“If suspect debris were spotted, the aircraft would more than likely use the EO/IR camera,” he said Wednesday. He was referring to a camera with electro-optical and infrared functions that can discern objects much more sharply than can a naked human eye.

As the geographic scope of the search has widened, Australia, as well as China, India, France, the United States, and other nations have offered ships, surveillance planes, satellites, and experts to Malaysia, which is leading the effort. The investigators face a formidable set of mechanical, avionic, and satellite communication puzzles.

Flight 370 was about 40 minutes into a six-hour trip to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, early March 8 when it suddenly stopped communicating with air traffic controllers and turned far off course, cutting back across peninsular Malaysia, over the Strait of Malacca and toward the Indian Ocean. Military radar tracked it for a while, but the operators did not seek to identify the plane or alert anyone. A satellite over the ocean picked up automated signals for several more hours — facts not released publicly for days after the plane vanished.

The satellite “pings” led investigators to conclude that the plane had made its way to some point along one of two long, arcing corridors that together embrace 2.24 million square nautical miles of sea and land.

Investigators said the plane’s extraordinary diversion from its intended course was probably carried out by someone who had aviation experience. The Malaysian police, who found that Zaharie had built a flight simulator in his home, said Wednesday that some data had been erased from the simulator Feb. 3, more than a month before the ill-fated flight.

Evidence suggests that whoever diverted the plane knew how to disable its communications systems and program course changes, and the data recorded in the pilot’s flight simulator may shed light on whether he was involved. But building and using flight simulators at home is a popular hobby among aviation enthusiasts, and the deletion of data from Zaharie’s simulator may have been routine housekeeping.

Zaharie appears to have completed the first stage of building in fall 2012, when he joined an online forum for simulator enthusiasts and described his newly completed setup, which included six high-definition video monitors, a center pedestal and an overhead panel, all running on a popular Microsoft program called FSX.

He said he was looking to take his system to “the next level of simulation: Motion!” Installing a motion platform to enhance the physical realism of the cockpit simulator could have added thousands of dollars to an already sophisticated amateur project, according to hobbyists.

The computer search could reveal impulses or plans linked to the plane’s disappearance. But the investigators could also conclude that Zaharie deleted files just as the average person does to clean out a computer.