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KUALA LUMPUR — The pilot of a Malaysia Airlines jet that went missing on Saturday enjoyed flying the Boeing 777 so much that he spent his off days tinkering with a flight simulator of the plane that he had set up at home, current and former co-workers said.
Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, captain of the airliner carrying 239 people bound for Beijing from the Malaysian capital, had always wanted to become a pilot and joined the national carrier in 1981.
Airline staff who worked with the pilot said Zaharie knew the ins and outs of the Boeing 777 extremely well, as he was always practicing with the simulator. They declined to be identified due to company policy.
"He was an aviation tech geek. You could ask him anything and he would help you. That is the kind of guy he is," said a Malaysia Airlines co-pilot who had flown with Zaharie in the past.
Zaharie set up the Boeing 777 simulator at his home in a suburb on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital where many airline staff stay as it provides quick access to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Pictures posted by Zaharie on his Facebook page show a simulator with three computer monitors, a tangle of wires and several panels.
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"We used to tease him. We would ask him, why are you bringing your work home," said a pilot who knew Zaharie for 20 years.
Zaharie's passion for aviation went beyond the Boeing 777. Other photos posted up by him on Facebook show he was an avid collector of remote-controlled, miniature aircraft, including a lightweight twin-engined helicopter.
Zaharie was certified by Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) as an examiner to conduct simulator tests for pilots, said several officials from Malaysia Airlines.
They said it was impossible that Zaharie would be in any way to blame for the disappearance of the aircraft.
"He knew everything about the Boeing 777. Something significant would have had to happen for Zaharie and the plane to go missing. It would have to be total electrical failure," said another Malaysia Airlines pilot who knew Zaharie.
Zaharie has flown Fokker F50s, Boeing 737s and the Airbus A300 in over three decades with Malaysia Airlines. He had over 18,000 hours of flying experience. His 27-year-old co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid had clocked 2,763 hours - having joined Malaysia Airlines in 2007.
"The Boeing 777 doesn't just stall like that," said a former Malaysia Airlines pilot who works for a rival airline. "It is one of the safest planes out there. It doesn't just fall out of the sky like that."