As Sunday's one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 approached and the Malaysia government prepared to issue an interm report on its investigation, the sister of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah issued an impassioned defense of her brother, calling him a "man of integrity."
"As things stand today, with no tangible evidence to show, NO ONE, be you politician, scientist, aviation expert, plane crash investigator, pilot, retired pilot, media or whoever else ... NONE OF YOU have a right to blame Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah for any wrongdoing," Sakinab Shah said in a statement released online.
With no black boxes from the plane found, nor any debris of any kind, much speculation has centered on Shah and whether he deliberately downed the aircraft. Flight MH370 was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it vanished, and all 239 people aboard including Shah are presumed dead.
Sakinab Shah, 53, said she prayed this "bizarre mystery will unravel soon," and dismissed speculation that her brother's marriage was troubled and that provided some motivation for him to crash the aircraft.
Under rules of the International Civil Aviation Organization, Malaysia must release an interim report on the anniversary of MH370's disappearance. The Malaysian-led investigation team was put together last April with specialists from the U.S., Australia, Britain, China, Singapore, Indonesia and Singapore as well as experts from Boeing Co., the plane's manufacturer, and Inmarsat, a British satellite communications firm.
The report is expected to discuss investigations into the plane itself, its crew and passengers and the information that led experts to believe the jet crashed off the western coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean. One critical question is whether the aircraft's communications equipment and transponder were deliberately shut off as the Boeing 777 left Malaysian air space and entered Vietnam's jurisdiction.
For the record
March 7, 8:46 a.m.: An earlier version of this post identified the Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared as a Boeing 737. It was a Boeing 777.
For months, four sonar-equipped boats searching for MH370 have methodically swept a swathe of the Indian Ocean 1,000 miles off Australia. Already, they have scanned an area twice the size of Los Angeles County.
By May, when they are expected to wrap up their work, they will have traversed another three Los Angeles County-sized zones. This is the "priority zone," investigators' best guess as to the location of the aircraft.
The complexities of the search are hard to overstate -- the area is remote, with water depths of more than 18,000 feet. The search area encompasses underwater mountains, crevasses, ridges and 6,000-foot sheer cliffs, formations that could obscure airplane debris. The $93-million effort is being funded by Australia and Malaysia.
The ships are looking for anything that "stands out" from the sea floor. Investigators have divided those sonar contacts into three classes -- Level 3 objects stand out from the surroundings but have low probability of being significant; Level 2 are objects with "more interest" but still unlikely to be significant; and Level 1 constitutes something of "high interest" that warrants immediate further investigation.
So far, over 100 objects have been classified as Level 3, and more than 10 at Level 2, including some that have the dimensions of shipping containers that might have fallen off carge ships into the sea. But nothing to date has rated Level 1, investigators say.
If the survey ships do find something of immediate interest, investigators have said they have a plan "on the shelf," ready to activate.
But if the search turns up nothing by May, Australia, Malaysia and China will have tough decisions to make about how to proceed.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week said there was "hope and expectation that the ongoing search will succeed," though he cautioned: "I can't promise that the search will go on at this intensity forever."