The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was finally called off in the first week of June 2018.
The flight's disappearance on the morning of 8 March 2014 has been described as the greatest aviation mystery of all time, surpassing the disappearance of Amelia Earhart in 1937. Whether or no it now holds that record, the fruitless four year search for the missing plane is certainly the most costly in aviation history and MH370 has already spawned more conspiracy theories than the assassination of JFK; the disappearance of Australian PM Harold Holt; and the death of the former Princess Diana of Wales; combined.
While flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, to Beijing Capital International Airport in China, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a twenty year old Boeing 777-200ER, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew, disappeared from radar screens as it passed over the gulf of Thailand.
There was nothing unusual about the flight when Malaysia's Subang Air Traffic Control signed-off with the aircraft at 1:19 am that morning. The crew were soon expected make contact with Vietnamese air traffic control in Ho Chi Minh City for the next leg of the flight. But this did not occur.
Air traffic control uses aircraft identifiers, that work in the secondary radar regime, to track commercial aircraft. If a pilot turns the identifier transponder off that aircraft disappears from the controller's radar screen. This happened in the case of MH370 just two minutes after the sign-off to Subang Air Traffic Control and the aircraft thereafter maintained radio silence: failing to respond to any calls.
Large commercial jets are also continuously monitored by ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) used by the owner; the builder; and engine supplier to monitor critical aircraft systems and engine performance. These components are continuously monitored and their condition is reported via satellite back to base. ACARS works in the background independent of the flight deck and is not normally accessed by the pilots. Yet on this occasion it was disabled at the same time as the secondary radar transponders went dark and radio transmissions ceased.
But because these events coincided with the expected air traffic handover and flights can be delayed, it took some time for air traffic control in Ho Chi Minh to notice that the expected flight had not appeared in their system.
The most likely cause of the simultaneous loss of all communications was a catastrophic loss of all electrical power on board as might occur if the plane had exploded, for example if hit with a rocket like MH17 just four months later, or suddenly crashed; so that all generators and backup batteries stopped simultaneously - preventing a distress call.
When last seen by air traffic control the aircraft was flying on the programmed flight path travelling at an expected 471 knots at a nominal 35,000 ft. In the event that the crew was unresponsive, for example as a result of hypoxia following a catastrophic depressurisation, and the aircraft was flying on un-piloted, the automatic pilot was programmed to fly to Beijing Capital International Airport.
It was a clear morning and other flights in the neighbourhood were asked for visual or radar confirmation of MH370 or evidence of a crash. This proved to be fruitless. Nor was it found on its previously programmed route.
Shortly after MH370 disappeared from both air traffic control radar and ACARS a large aircraft, later identified as MH370, was seen on Malaysian military radar turning and changing altitude. It was now headed in the opposite direction, a total course change of about 160 degrees and heading back over the Malay peninsular. As it looked like a regular commercial flight military radar kept tracking it but fighter jets were not scrambled to investigate.
As it flew west past Penang Island, on the west coast, it made a series of course adjustments to the north, towards Sri Lanka in what was later realised to be a strategy to avoid flying over Sumatra, where it may have been picked up on Indonesian military radar. It was last seen on Malaysian military radar off the northern tip of Sumatra.
Malaysia Airlines initially estimated that given it's fuel load and nominal flying conditions MH370 would have run out of fuel and crashed at around 8.30am, about seven hours after the disappearance.
Initially it could have flown anywhere within range beyond this point and many spurious sightings were reported along the then projected flight path towards Sri Lanka.
A breakthrough was heralded sometime later when analysis of satellite data indicated that a still functioning ACARS sub-system on the aircraft had attempted a 'hand-shake' with Britain's Inmarsat mobile services satellite. Repeated such hand-shake attempts, while the satellite was overhead, together with the satellite's position, confirmed that the plane had turned sharply south, after it was last seen on radar, towards the southern Indian Ocean. The last of these hand-shakes took place at 08:11, indicating that it was still flying about twenty minutes before it was expected to run out of fuel. Together these data suggested a search area and as the aircraft's 'black box' carried a sonar beacon it was hoped that it would be found quickly before the transponders' batteries were depleted. This initial search proved to be fruitless and media speculation ran wild.
After some months of searching several pieces of aircraft debris washed up on beaches along the western shores of the Indian Ocean.
Three of these are unique components of the missing Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER aircraft, identified by their serial numbers and other irrefutable evidence.
Together with modelling of the prevailing ocean currents, these are consistent with other evidence that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean close to the location suggested by the satellite analysis.
In addition five exterior panels have been found without unique numbers but having paint layers and other indications consistent the missing plane. Two were found in Mozambique, one in Mauritius one in Madagascar and one in South Africa. Many other 'finds' have not been confidently matched to the missing plane. Barnacles and other sea life found on the confirmed pieces are consistent with a crash site off Western Australia. None of the confirmed debris suggests a fire or pyrotechnic explosion on board.
Australia is the closest landmass to the projected crash site and Australian government determined to find the last resting place of its citizens by leading the international search. Yet despite narrowing of the search area, as new data came in, MH370 was not found. So in January 2017 the government sponsored search was called off.
In the meantime, sophisticated analysis of the satellite data revealed a Doppler shift in the frequency of last signal received, suggesting a rapid decent at around 8:19. Doppler shift is the shift in frequency due to speed that's heard as a race car passes and police radar uses to catch speeding motorists.
The aircraft appeared to be in a controlled dive (not spinning) and thus may have 'ditched' earlier than first assumed based on estimated fuel depletion. A new search area, further north on the same satellite identified flight path, seemed potentially fruitful.
So in 2018 a new search was initiated by seabed exploration company Ocean Infinity. The company’s Seabed Constructor sailed to the search zone and deployed a fleet of eight autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) - essentially self-guided mini-submarines - to begin a new search on a 'no-find, no-fee' basis.
Having found nothing by May 28 2018, this search contract was officially terminated, several weeks early, by a newly elected Malaysian government.
Ocean Infinity’s Seabed Constructor was still recalling it's AUV's as they each have a mission time of over two days. And as they had not yet completed their search mission the company announced that they would continue to investigate a spot directly north of their current position where in 2014 a Chinese patrol ship detected an ultrasonic pulse which could have been from a black-box: “before we head to port and bring this search to a close”.
As at the time of writing there have been no further reports.
Official investigators initially insisted on assuming that this was an accident.
An early suggestion that the plane was on autopilot following a catastrophic depressurisation that killed everyone on board was based on a Boeing notice warning about a risk of cracks forming around an aerial on 777 aircraft. But then it transpired that the Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER did not have this feature.
Yet catastrophic depressurisation simultaneous with loss of communications remained the preferred scenario informing the search. That this 'accident' happened immediately after Malaysian air traffic control signed-off was assumed to be a strange coincidence. The aircraft was then thought to be flying itself on automatic pilot that had somehow reset itself in a random or default way that just happened to take it, by several flight changes, to the southern Indian Ocean.
Critics have pointed out that, for liability and cost reasons, it's not in the Malaysian Government's interest for blame to fall on the Malaysian Airlines pilot, who was legally an agent of the company. If this was the result of an aircraft fault or if a third party can be implicated, they're 'off the hook'. And as long as doubts remain compensation can be delayed.
Improbability piled on to improbability, particularly after it was found that the ACARS system was not fully disabled and the automatic pilot was apparently functioning. It was only the communications and those ACARS functions available to the pilot that had failed.
Soon no one could believe this was an accident.
It is now beyond doubt that Flight MH370 crashed or crash landed in the southern Indian Ocean shortly after 8 am on the morning of March 8 2014.
Irrespective of what happened while in flight, or how the plane came down, the chances of survival at sea without a prompt rescue are nil, so everyone on board was killed, one way or another.
The majority of the passengers were Chinese (153). The next largest national group was Malaysian. There were also six Australians and two New Zealanders on board.
As I've indicated, given the scarcity of facts there have been many conspiracy theories and I have listed some below. Dismissing those for the minute, there seem to be two plausible scenarios, each having expert support. These await discovery of the 'black-box' flight recorder to conclusively determine which is correct:
The aircraft was:
Experts have advanced reasons for believing one or other of these scenarios. This has a bearing on the appropriate search area. The first case suggests it was flown down before the fuel expired and then ditched in a controlled way to minimise debris - thus helping to hide the crash site. In this case it could have been ditched before the fuel ran out. So it could be to the north of the already searched area or if flown then glided to the last of the fuel, further south. When found it should still be more or less intact.
In the second case the aircraft was last detected just as it had run out of fuel at high altitude and was already diving towards the ocean. This is the reason for the revised search area short (north) of the original search area. Experts have pointed to the flap debris that suggests that they were not extended as when gliding or landing in a controlled splash-down into the sea.
These final scenarios depend to a large extent on the revised flight plan entered by the culprit, who obviously would have calculated when the fuel would run out and may have programmed final flight corrections such as a rapid decent and levelling out at low altitude before the the fuel expired, to minimise debris.
Again, until the 'black-box' flight recorder is located there is no certainty.
So what do we know?
Circumstantial evidence points strongly to the culprit being the plane's captain 53-year-old Captain Zaharie Ahmad:
Unless and until the 'black-box' and/or the wreck is found the detailed method will be a matter of speculation.
But several experienced 777 pilots have suggested how they would go about it.
Among these British airline captain Simon Hardy and New Zealand-born captain Mike Keane, the former chief pilot of easyJet. These pilots told The Weekend Australian newspaper, published on-line:
|"Having sent the co-pilot to the passenger cabin on an errand early on, Zaharie would have depressurised the cabin to put everyone else to sleep and then death after their short supply of oxygen ran out and he enjoyed his longer supply. That would have stopped anyone alerting authorities by mobile phone when the aircraft flew back over Malaysia. With everyone dead, Zaharie would have re-pressurised the aircraft and flown the rest of the trip in comfort.
It stands to reason that having gone to all this trouble and planning, Zaharie would have flown the plane to the end and ditched it to maintain full control of the outcome, including sinking it in as few pieces as possible.
... we know from flight plan information recovered by the FBI from Zaharie’s home computer flight simulator that he plotted a similar course; clearly this was carefully thought out from start to finish.
He would not have risked the aircraft on fuel exhaustion spiralling uncontrolled into a 1000km/h dive that would produce masses of debris, some of which would float for months. Rather, he would have tried a controlled ditching, which in those rough seas would most likely kill him and wreck the aircraft but leave it substantially intact to avoid floating debris."
So this might have been the perfect 'missing plane' crime. Had it not been for the satellite overhead and the attempted hand-shakes there would not have been the slightest possibility of finding this aircraft.
Now that we know roughly where the aircraft is the greatest remaining mystery is motive.
If Zaharie was seeking posthumous fame as the perpetrator of the perfect crime why didn't he leave a suicide note or post his reasons on social media?
The mass murder of 238 people could possibly be an act of religious fanaticism. But again there is no such claim and he was not known to be particularly religious.
It seems that this murder took months of planning. This suggests brooding - despair or hatred - against whom? Malaysian Airways? Mankind in general?
Could he know who would be travelling on that date? Was he prepared to put his plan into effect whenever that passenger appeared? Someone regular? A crew member? An ex-lover?
William of Occam (Occam's Razor) would caution us to choose the simplest solution consistent with the evidence: don't overcomplicate.
Despite official reluctance to accept this, the simplest fit to the events is a murder-suicide.
Why is this hard to believe? During the four years since MH370 was deliberately crashed into the Indian Ocean, there have been numerous mass shootings mostly in America.
Some of these were planned weeks or months in advance. We were present the day after one in Las Vegas last year. On this occasion, the perpetrator had acquired automatic weapons; ammunition and 'bump-stocks' turning self-loading weapons into virtual machine guns, weeks in advance. He then practiced out in the desert before taking a corner suite in a hotel overlooking a concert site. Then over several days he smuggled the weapons and ammunition into the room in preparation for the mass murder of young people completely unknown to him, in the certain knowledge that he too would be killed. Posthumous fame did not seem to be a motive. It seemed to be: 'I'm out of here and I'm taking as many as I can with me.'
In a similar vein on 24 March 2015 Andreas Lubitz co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525, an Airbus A320, used a ruse to get rid of the others on the flight deck then, exploiting the anti-hijacking isolation of the cockpit, crashed the plane before they could regain entry. All 144 passengers and six crew members were killed.
From here we move inexorably into conspiracy theory. By definition, if someone else was involved this was a conspiracy.
Conspiracy theorists have variously suggested that this 'someone else' was: a terrorist organisation; big business; or government espionage.
Several governments including Malaysia, China, the USA and Australia have been involved in the four year search. It's involved a lot of experts and cost many hundreds of millions of dollars. These governments do not seem to be obvious allies in a grand deception and cover-up, involving massively falsified evidence. So perhaps we can rely on their various official announcements, at least to the extent that they concern the factual evidence?
Again Occam's Razor would caution us to choose the simplest solution consistent with the evidence.
For example, there's no evidence of a hijack, just as there's no evidence suggesting that we need to find a culprit beyond the flight deck. Nevertheless some still doubt Zaharie was acting alone or was responsible at all.
One theory involves the contract killing of a number of people on board, otherwise why go to the trouble for a single person who might just as easily die in a car crash? Early speculation surrounded the 20 staff members of US microchip manufacturer and defence contractor Freescale Semiconductor (in particular a group of development engineers two of whom were named in company patents) and traced the company ownership back to the 'sinister' Rothschild family. Freescale has plants in both Malaysia and China. Twelve of these employees were from Malaysia and eight were from China. But if murdering theses two was the only motive why not simply crash the aircraft immediately? Why do their bodies need to be hidden?
Other speculation along these lines relates to cargo being shipped in the plane's hold. An erroneous manifest has been discovered listing 2.45 tonnes of lithium batteries. But when queried the shipper said it was an error it should have read: 200 Kg of batteries and the remainder unspecified electronic equipment. Could this be a secret worth taking somewhere it couldn't be recovered?
Possibly Zaharie or another pilot (smuggled on board) stole the plane. A version of this theory has them successfully landing somewhere and the 'so called debris' being planted. Survivors' relatives have advanced this theory in the desperate hope that loved ones are still alive on some remote island or in different versions, perhaps in Russia or Israel. A variation is that the crash was accidental, an attempted theft that went wrong.
Yet another suggests this was an attempted 9/11 style attack on the US air force and communications base at Diego Garcia, resulting in the hijacked plane being shot down.
These have the common theme that one or more government agencies, or possibly aliens, are 'covering up' and providing misinformation - fake news. In this event any scenario becomes possible.
Mahathir Bin Mohamad's Theory
The Boeing 777-200 is a first generation 'fly-by-wire' aircraft. So the pilots do not control the aircraft control surfaces directly but manage a computer that flies the aircraft. This computer can theoretically be managed by someone on the ground. Thus someone is supposed to have hacked the computer and taken control during the flight: depressurising the aircraft to kill everyone; then flying that complex course to the aircraft's difficult to find crash site; thus removing any electronic or tampering evidence.
It was also a plot element in the Series 2 of The Tunnel, the acclaimed British-French crime drama television series, which begins with a plane being commandeered from the ground and crashed.
I have to confess to using this idea myself in The Cloud, my novella, published on this website. I set it in the future with an assumed blanket world wide communications network. A problem with flying it from the ground, like a military drone, is that for long periods of this flight there was no way of communicating with the onboard computer. Thus it would need to have been pre-programmed early in the flight, setting the full future flight-path when communications were lost. Alternatively it might have been hacked and pre-programmed on the ground: to take over when certain criteria were met.
This scenario raises more questions than it answers as it requires both an unknown culprit and an unknown motive.
Yet the new Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Bin Mohamad, advanced this theory, soon before he called-off the latest search.
The cynical might suggest that he would like to avoid blame falling on Malaysian Airlines.
In this Mahathir is again at odds with another Australian PM (there is a history of dispute with Australia going way back). Australia's ex-PM, Tony Abbot, is already on record supporting the murder-suicide scenario, thus implicating Captain Zaharie Ahmad.