The pilot of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 built a sophisticated at-home flight simulator that has come under scrutiny by authorities this week, but other pilots say there's nothing amiss about a professional flier practicing at home.
Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah had more than 18,000 hours of experience in the air as a pilot for Malaysia Airlines when his last flight, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared last week. Authorities are looking into whether Shah or other members of the plane's crew had any motive to bring down the plane, but have found no evidence.
On YouTube videos Shah posted online, he can be seen posing in front of his multi-screen flight simulator he used at his house.
Randy Patfield, a licensed pilot with more than 10,000 hours of flying experience and the CEO of Aviation International News, told ABC News today that many pilots use at-home software to practice flying different routes and become acquainted with unfamiliar airports.
"I don't have numbers on it but I know people that have (simulators) and find them very useful. I'm 64, but I think younger people who grew up having flight simulators on their computers and got really used to it would like it a lot more than I do. One of our pilots (at AIN) does it a lot and enjoys it as a free time activity," Patfield said.
"It's really hard to infer anything positive or negative or nefarious by the fact that he had this simulator," he continued. "It could be to practice his routes or it could have been more for fun."
Patfield cautioned that all pilots have to undergo routine training in multi-million dollar simulators with instructors, and those machines are very different from the at-home kind that Shah built. The home simulators are not for purposes of licensing or improving skills.
"The prices of these devices are coming down all the time," he said. "I've seen them at air shows and conventions where you could get something that would easily fit in your garage. It wouldn't have full motion, but it would have really great visual displays and be able to show various phases of operations and you could get some flight controls too. They just don't have hydraulics and autopilot systems connected to them."
Malaysian authorities took apart Shah's flight simulator from his home and put it back together at their police headquarters in recent days, searching it for clues as to what happened to the missing flight. They found some deleted files that had been erased in February, but otherwise found nothing suspicious, police said.
The FBI and Malaysian authorities are now trying to recover the deleted files.
Shah's friend, Peter Chong, told ABC News last week that Shah was merely a "tech geek" who had friends over to play with his simulator all the time.