MH370

Malaysian flight MH370 – the mystery continues

This column was published in the Daily FT on September 2, 2019. With the sixth anniversary rapidly approaching, a follow up piece will be published soon.

The disappearance of MH370, a Boeing 777 flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8th 2014, continues to baffle investigators five and a half years since it occurred.

The facts

The basic facts are well known. The flight made a last radio call to Kuala Lumpur radar just before it entered Vietnamese airspace over the South China Sea. It then disappeared from Air Traffic Control “secondary” radar scopes and made no further position reports. “Primary” (less accurate) radar signatures show that it made a sharp left turn back towards the Malay peninsula, passed over the island of Penang and then made another turn, this time to the right, as it went over the Straits of Malacca. This is the last known position from accurate and verifiable sources.

MH370 simply vanished. The complete disappearance of a modern aircraft, one of the safest types known, operated by a reputable airline, with no evidence or claims of terrorist action, is unprecedented. To this day, we do not know what happened.

The search

Since then, two massive and very costly efforts have been made to find and recover the wreckage of the aircraft. But without a clear picture of the flight path followed, these efforts were fruitless. Initially, searches were conducted in the South China Sea, where the last contact (both on Air Traffic Control secondary radar and the pilot’s radio transmissions) was made. Once the information that the aircraft had made a turn towards Penang was revealed, the focus of the search shifted.

After the last known position (west of Penang) investigators found that the aircraft’s systems had been in contact with a satellite network, for purposes of passing routine engine performance information. These transmissions are not controlled by the pilots and contain only data – no position information is attached. However, enthusiast and technicians were able to extrapolate from the data and work out a probable position of the aircraft.

The transmissions continued for over six hours since the last known position of the aircraft. This could indicate that the 777 continued to fly until the fuel in its tanks was exhausted. The satellite transmissions appeared to indicate that the aircraft turned once more after passing the northern tip of Sumatra, to the left again towards the southwest – far out towards the southern Indian Ocean, an area of high seas deep waters.

Conspiracy theories

As the mystery deepened, many conspiracy theorists got into the act. There were claims that the aircraft was carrying secret cargo to China and that hostile forces had seized the aircraft to prevent this. Given that the US Navy has a base at Diego Garcia, also in Indian Ocean, there were theories that the 777 had been flown there and then destroyed! The fates of the passengers and crew seems to have been ignored in this case.

The satellite data that indicated the aircraft had flown southwest, could also be interpreted to show a northwest track, which would bring it over India, towards Kazakstan. This too, while improbable, has its share of believers.

The sane and sensible approach indicated that the southern Indian Ocean is the likely resting place of MH370. However a surface search ended in April 2014 with no results. The probable track seemed to indicate that the aircraft finally hit the surface about 1500 miles west and south of Perth, Australia. A location as remote as is possible, with deep seas and ocean floors that are unmapped.

Debris recovery

Finally, beginning in June 2015, some pieces of debris washed up on Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean, which were positively identified as belonging to MH370. More parts have been found washed ashore in Madagascar and Mozambique (both in Southern Africa) indicating that ocean currents have been slowly carrying the wreckage to shore from a crash site somewhere deep in the Indian Ocean.

Forensic examination of the debris appears to indicate that the aircraft impacted the sea at high speed, implying that a scenario that crashed as a result of fuel exhaustion unlikely.

Pilot caused

Increasingly, evidence points toward the only plausible scenario being the disappearance of MH370 was initiated by one of the pilots. With the young co-pilot being an unlikely suspect, investigators have focused on the Captain Zaharie Ahmed Shah, as the likely perpetrator. However, no firm evidence has been found as to why Zaharie, who was in his fifties and a respected instructor pilot, would have committed such a heinous deed.

Until such time as the crash site is found, it is very unlikely that we will have a definitive answer to this mystery.

Have there been previous pilot suicides?

 Sadly, there have a few cases where the pilot has deliberately crashed aircraft, though this remains an extremely rare event.

  • Royal Air Maroc Flight 630 was a passenger flight in 1994 which crashed approximately ten minutes after takeoff. All 44 passengers and crew on board were killed. A later investigation showed that the crash was deliberately caused by the pilot.
  • In 1997, a captain working for SilkAir (an airline based in Singapore) is believed to have disabled a Boeing 737 and deliberately crashed it near Sumatra.
  • In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 from New York to Cairo, crashed off Long Island with the loss of everyone on board. The US National Transportation Safety Board concluded that it was deliberately crashed into the sea by its co-pilot but Egyptian investigators have disputed this conclusion.
  • In 2013, just months before MH370 disappeared, the captain of LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 flew his Embraer E190 twin jet from cruising altitude into the ground, killing all 27 passengers and all six crew members.
  • The most recent case is the Germanwings Airbus that was deliberately crashed into the French Alps on March 24, 2015, also causing the loss of everyone on board. Its co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had waited for the pilot to use the bathroom and then locked him out. Lubitz had a record of depression and—as investigations later discovered—had made a study of MH370’s disappearance, one year earlier.

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