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Mystery call to Malaysian pilot

Attention has switched back to the captain of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 after reports suggest he received a two-minute call shortly before take-off from a mobile phone number obtained under a false identity.

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Malaysian police have denied two British media reports that they are investigating a mobile phone call from the cockpit of Malaysia Airlines MH370 before take-off.

Police Inspector-General Kahlid Abu Bakar on Monday dismissed reports in Britain's Mail on Sunday that police were investigating a call senior pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah made on his mobile phone shortly before the plane took off from Kuala Lumpur.

The newspaper claimed the call was to a mobile number obtained under a false identity, and that police had traced the number to a shop selling SIM cards in Kuala Lumpur.

Zaharie Ahmad Shah was one of  the pilot on Flight MH370

Investigating a mobile phone call: Zaharie Ahmad Shah, senior pilot on the MH370 flight.

The phone had been bought "very recently" by someone who gave a woman's name, but was using a false identity, the report said.

The story was the second in a week to make claims about a pre-flight phone call, following a similar one in fellow UK newspaper The Sun.

Police initially declined to comment on the existence of the two-minute call made from the cockpit of the Boeing 777 aircraft with 239 people on board.

But Inspector-General Kahlid said that if the newspaper could provide the telephone number "that would be helpful".

"If not ... it is mere speculation," he said.

Inspector Kahlid said investigations into what happened before and during the ill-fated flight were continuing.

The newspaper claimed investigators were treating the call as significant because anyone buying a pay-as-you go SIM card in Malaysia has to fill out a form giving their identity card or passport number. In practice, though, it is easy to buy a SIM card without handing over a passport.

The Mail on Sunday claimed the discovery raised fears of a possible link between Captain Zaharie and terror groups whose members routinely use untraceable SIM cards.

However political activists in Malaysia also sometimes use SIM cards bought with fake identities if they fear that their phone calls may be bugged, the newspaper claimed. Captain Zaharie is an active member of Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People's Justice Party).

Police have spoken to Mr Zaharie's wife Faizah Khan but have not formally interviewed her about her husband, whose background has been under intense scrutiny since the plane was turned back from its scheduled flight path en route to Beijing on March 8.

Investigators are now planning to formally interview Mr Zaharie's wife. There are reports that the couple, who have three children, were separated but had been living under the same roof.

Everyone else who spoke to the pilot on his phone in the hours before the flight took off has already been interviewed.

Some trace of the passion that Mr Zaharie had for flying can be found in the trail of e-mail exchanges and online message board posts that detail the Malaysia Airlines pilot's construction of a state-of-the-art flight simulator at home.

Now the stack of computer monitors, graphics cards and software he painstakingly sourced and improved is being pored over by investigators trying to make sense of the disappearance more than two weeks ago of the passenger jet he was piloting.

There is no evidence that Zaharie was responsible for the loss of Flight MH370, which had 227 passengers and 10 crew, including the 53-year-old captain, aboard.

In fact, many in the online community of specialist vendors and flying enthusiasts whom Zaharie turned to for components and advice say it is common for pilots to enjoy flying so much that they have simulators at home.

"Many pilots contact me interested in making 'home' simulators. Zaharie along with some others pilots actually used my motion controllers to upgrade the realism of their simulators by building motion platforms," Thanos Kontogiannis, a California-based aviation enthusiast who helped Zaharie build the simulator, posted on his blog on Monday.

Kontogiannis, whose LinkedIn profile and blog describe him as a San Diego-based Qualcomm employee who builds motion controllers in his spare time, did not respond to requests for comment.

But with investigators convinced that the missing plane was diverted thousands of miles off its scheduled course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing by a skilled aviator, attention has focused on Zaharie and the 27-year-old co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid.

Malaysian police seized the simulator last week from Zaharie's gated home in an upscale suburb west of Kuala Lumpur. Games he was running from the Microsoft "Flight Simulator" series and the latest "X-plane" title were being examined.

"Looking through the flight logs in these simulator games is a key part of the investigation," said an official with direct knowledge of the investigation into Zaherie and his co-pilot.

"X-plane 10 was interesting to investigators because it was the latest thing Zaharie bought. Also it is the most advanced out there and had all sorts of emergency and combat scenarios."

Malaysian investigators have asked the FBI for help in memory recovery after discovering some data was deleted on February 3.

VIRTUAL COCKPIT

Zaharie spent thousands of hours in the virtual cockpit of the machine playing flying games or boosting its capabilities. He seemed proud of the results.

On the evening of November 17, 2012, he posted a picture of his newly-finished simulator and its specifications to an online forum, calling it "awesome" and saying it was his "passion". He said it was "time to take to the next level of simulation" with a motion controller and that he was "looking for buddies".

A motion controller makes the chair of the simulator pitch and turn like in a real cockpit to simulate the climbs, descents and banked turns of a real plane. Zaharie's set-up also included a center pedestal, where aircraft controls sit, and overhead panel.

It's impossible to estimate exactly how much Zaharie spent on his simulator, but rough estimate by Reuters shows it was likely to be well in excess of $7000.

Flight simulator costs vary depending on parts used. For example, a replica Boeing-737 seat on Flight Simulator Centre, a website with simulator parts, costs almost $5,000. An overhead panel listed on another website costs $800.

The software, currently a focus for investigators, would have allowed him to practice landing at more than 33,000 airports, on aircraft carriers, oil rigs, frigates, which pitch and roll with the waves, and helipads atop buildings.

Other software Zaharie was using would have let him to use the internet to fly with friends and he could have simulated "a lot of malfunctions, emergencies, go-arounds, return-to-base or divert with fairly exact procedures", according to Naoya Fujiwara, a flight simulator expert from Japan.

He could have simulated any weather and even downloaded real weather, wind and temperature data from a professional server, Fujiwara said.

Given the large amount of cheap memory loaded onto modern computers, it's unlikely Zaharie would have had to erase his flight data for technical reasons - so it remains unclear why some of the data was erased on February 3.

"Today storage capacity is not a problem for a computer running simulators," said Fernando Nunez Correas, a simulation software developer using some of the same components as Zaharie.

Erasing data may have been part of a regular maintenance routine or done to help improve the simulator's performance, flight simulator users say.

He could not have practiced evading radar, for instance, because radar is not part of the simulation, Nunez said.