Captain Zaharie Shah/Flight Simulator

DECODING MH370
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Captain Zaharie Shah's Flight Simulator

This article collates information about Captain Zaharie Shah's flight simulator from his Facebook page and other sources, describes how it was upgraded during 2013, and developed to include motion simulation.

Introduction

Two images are commonly used to illustrate Zaharie's flight simulator. Neither of them accurately reflect the complexity of the setup.

Zaharie Shah Flight Simulator

This image was posted by Zaharie to a forum x-sim.de, a DIY Motion Simulator Community, on 17 November 2012.

Zaharie was, at that time, planning to add motion to his own flight simulator simulator.

Development of the flight simulator is presented chronologically below.

Zaharie Shah with flight simulator in background

This image is a screen capture from a video that Zahahie posted to YouTube on 10 January 2013 . He is speaking about tuning an air conditioner and part of the flight simulator is in the background.

The video is part 1 of how to tune aircon to save electricity.

Comments and Notes

Zaharie made five videos which he uploaded to YouTube.

His account name - catalinapby1 - refers to an aircraft, the PBY Catalina, which he admired. He had a radio-controlled model of a Catalina.

The throttle quadrant which can be seen in the YouTube video is different from the throttle controller in the image from November 2012.


November 2012

Zaharie joined the DIY Motion Simulator Community x-sim.de on Tuesday 18 September 2012.

On Saturday 17 November 2012 Zaharie posted to the x-sim.de forum with a description of his flight simulator and attached a photograph.

Elo guys,
zaharie here.... pls to join x-sim. About a month ago I finish assembly of FSX and FS9 with
6 monitors .... with the latest graphic card ( 2 pieces of asus 7970) on one cpu awesome view on 3 panasonic 32 in. LCD HDMI
and 3 touchscreen Dell 21 inches for main (MCP) , center pedestal, overhead panel.
time to take to the next level of simulation.Motion! looking for buddies to share this passion.
Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah
BOEING 777 MALAYSIA AIRLINES
zaharies@hotmail.com

Zaharie attached the following photograph of his flight simulator.

Photo of Zaharie Shah Flight Simulator as posted to x-sim.de DIY Motion Simulator Community 17 November 2012

Source: Post by Zaharie Shah to x-sim.de DIY Motion Simulator Community 17 November 2012 https://www.x-sim.de/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=20&start=110


The description provided by Zaharie, and observation of the photo, enables us to summarise the technical details:

Hardware

  • three Panasonic 32 inch monitors - visible as the cockpit windows
  • three Dell 21 inch touchscreen monitors for the Main Control Panel, the Center Pedestal, and the Overhead Panel
  • one CPU
  • Zaharie installed two Asus 7970 graphic cards (each card can support up to 6 monitors)
  • keyboard and mouse for normal computer operation
  • flight control hardware:-
    • yoke
    • throttle control
    • joystick (visible on the left)
    • rudder pedals

Software

  • FSX - Microsoft Flight Simulator X, first released in 2006
  • FS9 - originally Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004.

Motion

  • Zaharie was planning to add motion simulation.

There were no significant responses to Zaharie's post.


AVSIM and PMDG

Zaharie was well known in the online community for flight simulator enthusiasts. He was also a customer of PMDG simulations which produces add-ins for flight simulation software. It is likely that Zaharie had installed the Boeing 777 products from PMDG.

Following the loss of MH370, PMDG Simulations posted a statement on the AVSIM website which included the following:

Captain Shah was well known to many in the flight simulation community because he had developed an online presence in which he dedicated many hours of his time to promoting the enjoyment of flying generally, and flight simulation specifically.

...

Aside from being a PMDG customer, Captain Shah had no relationship with PMDG Simulations.

Source:PMDG Simulations Comments on the loss of MH 370 at https://www.avsim.com/forums/topic/436853-pmdg-simulations-comments-on-the-loss-of-mh-370/

Comments and Notes

PMDG Simulations LLC website is https://www.precisionmanuals.com

The site description reads:

"PMDG works with some of the biggest names in aerospace and partners with some of the world's largest airlines in order to produce highly detailed airliner simulations that are capable of reproducing the complex world of of the modern flight deck in finite detail."


30 December 2012

Thanos 6 DOF Motion Simulator Electronics

Zaharie contacted Thanos by email seeking to buy components to support BFF 6DOF software. An extract reads:

Subject: AMC644USB board

Dear sir,

     I was referred to your web site by Ian of BFF. I am building a 6dof for FSX. Attached some pix. it is a 6monitors setup on 1 pc. I am interested to know if you have a complete AMC644USB board to support Ian BFF 6dof software.


Some explanation follows:-

  • Ian is the contact for BFF Design Ltd., a company registered in Scotland. The website BFF Simulation Force & Motion is: http://bffsimulation.com/index.php
  • 6 DOF refers to 6 Degree Of Freedom Motion Cue Software, available from BFF Design.
    The description page is http://bffsimulation.com/6DOF-Motion-Software.php
  • BFF design does not provide hardware for 6 DOF motion platform drives. "To use this software you will need to make your own servo drive hardware arrangements .... The data formats in which the software exports the actuator position demands are described in the online user guide."
  • Thanos supplies circuit boards which Zaharie subsequently ordered.
Comments and Notes

Following the loss of flight MH370, Thanos Kontogiannis wrote a tribute Sending Positive Energy Your Way, Zaharie!

Thanos described Zaharie as a friend, and included the text of emails exchanged between them up to April 2013.

These emails show that Zaharie is very polite, and has a significant level of technical understanding.


22 February 2013

Zaharie posted a photo to his Facebook Timeline with a caption that reads:

last session on my sim with Capt Zainal (chikgu) b4 aku borai kan PC tu... upgrade.

Capt Zainal at simulator, before upgrade

From this post we see that Zaharie intended to upgrade the hardware for the PC used with his flight simulator.

Comments and Notes

The post is also interesting for another reason:

- it shows someone other than Zaharie at the simulator.

From this we can conclude that:

  1. the existence of his flight simulator was no secret, and
  2. other people may have operated it.

26 February 2013

Zaharie added nine photos to an album called Rampage Extreme on Facebook. The photos show boxed components for his planned PC upgrade, and then some photos taken during the process.

Photos depicting components for planned PC upgrade

Comments and Notes

The RAMPAGE EXTREME is a computer Main Board by ASUS.

A description is on the webpage https://www.asus.com/Motherboards/
RAMPAGE_EXTREME/

Some photos from the album are shown below.

Caption: SIM VER.2 MAIN COMPONENTS

Photos depicting components for planned PC upgrade

Caption: RAMPAGE EXTREME SUPPORT UPTO 4 GPU , EXTREME OVERCLOCK WITH VGA HOTWIRING

Photos depicting components for planned PC upgrade


Caption: BEFORE DISASSEMBLY

Flight simulator computer before disassembly

Note that multiple hard disks are installed.

Caption: BEFORE DISASSEMBLY

Flight simulator computer before disassembly

Caption: AFTER REMOVAL OF THE TWO GPU UNIT AND COOLING TOWER . B4 EXTRACTION OF THE MOTHERBOARD

Flight simulator computer after removal of GPU


28 February 2013

The next item that Zaharie got excited about was a solid state hard drive for the PC.

Caption: SSD for the PC ...6gig transfer rate.

Solid State Drive for flight simulator PC

The package label indicates that this item is a SanDisk 240GB SSD.

Comments and Notes

The performance of the disk is described by the manufacturer:-

SanDisk Extreme SSD, which supports SATA 6Gb/s interface and when connected to SATA 6Gb/s port, can reach up to 550/520MB/s sequential read and sequential write speed rates respectively. However, when the drive is connected to SATA 3 Gb/s port, it can reach up to 285/275MB/s sequential read and sequential write speed rates respectively.

Source: Difference between SATA I, SATA II and SATA III


30 March 2013

The package ordered from Thanos finally arrived. Zaharie excitedly photographed both the box and the contents. The caption reads:

long awaited amc1280 motion interface. one of many parts for the 6DOF motion platform. Thks to my friend Thanos of California for this custom build.

AMC1280 motion interface for flight simulator

Comments and Notes

Zaharie assumed that Thanos was in Greece, until he learned otherwise on January 11, 2013:

What! in california? OMG. All this while I thought u r in Greece. Hehe LOL !
Sent from my Nokia phone

Refer to the tribute Sending Positive Energy Your Way, Zaharie! mentioned above.


5 April 2013

Zaharie started work on the motion interface for his flight simulator by interfacing it to a laptop. The caption reads:

First test on the prototype AMC1280 motion interface

First test on the prototype AMC1280 motion interface

Comments and Notes

It is likely that Zaharie had installed the software from BFF Design Ltd on the laptop and connected the circuit boards obtained from Thanos 6 DOF Motion Simulator Electronics to test the interface before attempting to control a servo motor.

That would be the next step, see below!


11 April 2013

Zaharie continued development of a prototype for the motion system and posted a video to Facebook showing it in operation. The image here is a (static) screen capture. The caption reads:

selain mengunakan thread mill sebagai penyakut baju or tempat jemur baju. ini satulagi kegunaan. Jadi test bench for my motion project. prototype A...pass!
hehehe

Test bench for motion project

Comments and Notes

This is possibly the last social media post by Zaharie regarding his motion project.

There were some follow-up technical questions to Thanos.


Thanos added to his original tribute with a Part 2.


Did Zaharie succeed with the Motion Project?

Zaharie does not seem to have posted any more progress messages on social media, but he did install the servo motors.

The evidence is in the photos below. These poor quality images are part of a set documenting the flight simulator components when it was seized by the Royal Malaysia Police. That was on Saturday, 15 March 2014, one week after the missing flight MH370, so Zaharie undoubtedly proceeded with his project long before that. The photos show servo motors, apparently connected to monitors.

Mouse modified for use on flight simulator

Servo motors used on Zaharie's flight simulator. Source: RMP

Comments and Notes

Zaharie's flight simulator was seized by the Royal Malaysia Police on Saturday, 15 March 2014 - one week after flight MH370 went missing.

For further information about the forensic investigation please refer to related articles.


Was the Flight Simulator broken?

Zaharie's family members have been quoted in the media as believing that the simulator was broken, and surprised that RMP forensic investigators were able to recover data such as the two data points in the southern Indian Ocean.

Based on the lack of a 'wow it works' post from Zaharie, and evidence of computer crashes caused by flight simulator software - noted in an RMP Forensic Report - it seems likely that it was, in a sense, broken.

However, Zaharie seems to have had a work-around. He had two similar 240 GB disks each with a different version of Microsoft Flight Simulator. The older version worked well enough for him to use it in February. The newer version had problems, perhaps driver issues, and Zaharie was still working at it.


Conclusion

Captain Zaharie Shah was a flying enthusiast with a hobby in electronics and the confidence to build a sophisticated flight simulator and computer from components. Adding motion simulation was a convergence of three interests: flying, electronics and computers.

Zaharie may have become absorbed by the challenges to overcome in making the computer upgrade and motion simulation work, but he would have succeeded if he had not been on flight MH370.

The flight simulator was seized by the Royal Malaysia Police on Saturday, 15 March 2014 and will most probably remain in police custody.