At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, a Boeing 777 is preparing for departure. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is a daily passenger flight between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Beijing, China. Forty-two minutes past midnight, Flight 370 is given clearance to depart. On board are Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, ten cabin crew members, and 227 passengers. Less than an hour into the flight, the plane is cruising over the South China Sea at an altitude of 35,000 feet. The night sky is clear and the weather is calm. Flight 370 is then instructed to signal air traffic control in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam as it is about to enter Vietnamese airspace. The flight controller in Kuala Lumpur says good night with no sign that anything should be amiss. One minute and forty-three seconds later, the aircraft suddenly vanish from radar screens at Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh, and Bangkok.
This form of positional tracking depends on a signal being emitted by one of two transponders aboard the plane, and so its disappearance would suggest both transponders ceased to function, or the system was manually deactivated by someone onboard. All subsequent attempts to contact and ascertain the whereabouts of Flight 370 are unsuccessful. The aircraft has seemingly vanished without a trace. After missing its scheduled time of arrival in Beijing some four hours later, Flight 370 is officially declared missing, and in the wake of that announcement, the most expensive search effort in aviation history is about to commence. The search was initially concentrated around the location of the flight’s disappearance between the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. The search area was soon expanded, however, after the Malaysian military disclosed additional information. Unlike the radar system employed by Air Traffic Control, long-range military radar does not rely on transponders but use reflectance to track the position of aerial targets.
A review of the data collected by the Malaysian military revealed that moments after contact with Flight 370 was lost, the aircraft had deviated from its scheduled flight path with a subtle turn to the right followed by a prolonged turn to the left. The aircraft had then flown back towards and across the Malaysian peninsula before turning right near the island of Penang. It maintained this northwesterly heading until it escaped the radar’s coverage. Over the next few days, the Strait of Malacca, the Andaman Sea, and the Bay of Bengal was scoured by a multinational fleet of aircraft and vessels, but there was no trace of Flight 370. Meanwhile, investigators began to analyze the aircraft’s satellite communication records. Like all modern airliners, Flight 370 was equipped with a satellite communications terminal, or SATCOM, to send and received transmissions to and from the ground. Prior to departure, the SATCOM terminal had logged on to the satellite network and established a connection with a ground station in Perth, Australia. That station then maintained a detailed record of all the incoming and outgoing traffic between it and Flight 370. This is what it contained. Prior to the flight’s disappearance over the South China Sea, everything appeared to be working as intended. Then, at some point during this portion of the flight, the SATCOM link was severed. For whatever reason, the terminal ceased to respond. But three minutes after the flight vanished over the Andaman Sea the terminal requested to log back on to the network. The SATCOM link was successfully reestablished and was not disrupted again until nearly six hours later when the flight is presumed to have crashed due to fuel exhaustion. During these final hours, two attempts were made to contact the plane via satellite telephone.
Both calls were acknowledged by the SATCOM terminal and would’ve been routed to the cockpit, yet they went unanswered. The terminal had also responded to five automatic status requests. In short, if the ground station had not heard from the aircraft in over an hour, it would transmit a signal to confirm the terminal was still online. While these transmissions did not contain any information about the flight’s position, investigators were able to measure the distance between the satellite and the aircraft at the time of each transmission based on how long it took those transmissions to be sent and received. This generated seven rings of possible locations from which seven of these transmissions are thought to have originated. By taking fuel consumption, speed, and other factors into account, flight path analysis indicated the most probable origin of the final transmission to be somewhere along this arc in the southern Indian Ocean. The search effort shifted accordingly, and as the region fell within the jurisdiction of Australia, the Australian government took charge of the operation. Over the next few weeks, the search area was progressively refined to account for oceanic drift as well as improved estimations of the flight path. But this part of the southern Indian Ocean is so remote it took six days just to get there. A new fleet of aircraft and vessels gradually covered more than 4,500,000 km2 of ocean, but Flight 370 was nowhere to be found. If the impact with the ocean had been sufficiently forceful, it was possible the resulting sound had been recorded by underwater listening devices known as hydrophones. This possibility was investigated, and four hydroacoustic monitoring stations had recorded something… While the timing and direction of the sound were reasonably consistent with the final satellite transmission, the estimated origin was not. The sound was in all likelihood caused by nothing more than geological activity. Flight 370 was also equipped with two underwater locator beacons which had a battery life of some 40 days, and as the deadline approached in early April, signals with a pulse and frequency somewhat similar to the signal emitted by the beacons were detected at depths of up to 3,000 meters. An autonomous submersible then spent weeks scanning the seafloor where the signals had been detected, but no wreckage was ever found.
And nothing would be found until more than 16 months later when a discovery was made on the opposite side of the Indian Ocean. On the 29th of July, 2015, a group of people was cleaning up a beach in Réunion, a small island to the east of Madagascar, when they stumbled upon this 2-meter-long metallic object covered in barnacles. Aviation experts quickly identified the object as a section of an aircraft wing known as a flaperon. Upon closer inspection, internal markings, including dates and serial numbers, conclusively ascertained the flaperon belonged to Flight 370. Even though Réunion Island is some 4,000 km west of the search area, and more than a year had gone by since the flight disappeared, the location was consistent with simulations of debris dispersal patterns. There was now tangible evidence that Flight 370 had crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The discovery of the flaperon prompted numerous searches along beaches and shorelines of southeastern Africa, and at least 31 additional items of interest have since been recovered and examined. Some of these items include: A section of the outboard flap from the right wing. A piece of cowling from one of the two engines. A partial door from the nose landing gear. A section of the vertical stabilizer. And a mangled casing from one of the embedded headrest monitors. Eighteen of these items were identified as either likely, highly likely, or almost certain to have originated from Flight 370, whereas only three could be confirmed. The remaining eleven could not be identified. There were no traces of an explosion found on any of the debris tested nor was there any evidence of a fire except for three small burn marks on one of the unidentifiable items. The search for debris was further aided by Earth observation satellites. Analyses of satellite imagery from March of 2014 uncovered a number of images which appeared to feature man-made objects floating on or just below the surface in the southern Indian Ocean. However, the images were not nearly sharp enough to resolve any identifiable markings, and multiple searches notwithstanding, this debris was never recovered. A satellite image taken mere hours after the final transmission, also captured what appeared to be a contrail some distance away from the search area. A later analysis, however, concluded it was most likely a shadow from a somewhat linear cloud formation.
The underwater portion of the search continued for months and eventually years before it was finally suspended in early 2017. By which point some 120,000 km2 of seabed had been scrutinized. The search effort was then resumed by an American salvage company known as Ocean Infinity, but after more than a year of searching, they too came up emptyhanded. Unless the final resting place of Flight 370 can be located, it may be impossible to determine exactly why it crashed. Nevertheless, there has been no shortage of theories. On the day of the disappearance, two of the passengers raised suspicion as they had boarded the flight with stolen passports which immediately prompted concerns of a hijacking. But investigators were unable to link the two men to any terrorist organizations and soon determined they had traveled under false identities because they were seeking asylum, not due to any nefarious intent. Similar suspicions were raised when one of the passengers were identified as a flight engineer who might have possessed the necessary expertise to take control of a Boeing 777. Apart from the 239 persons onboard, Flight 370 carried nearly 11 metric tons of cargo. Among the items listed on the flight manifest was a shipment of lithium-ion batteries, which lead some to suspect a fire might have broken out mid-flight. For instance, the crash of UPS Airlines Flight 6 in September of 2010 was the result of a fire that was ignited by a pallet of lithium-ion batteries.
Another potential source of ignition would be an electrical malfunction. The crash of Swissair Flight 111 in September of 1998 is thought to have been caused by a fire within the electrical wiring above the cockpit. The fire damaged and disabled multiple avionic systems, including the transponders and SATCOM. In the case of Flight 370, the sudden loss of communication and subsequent deviation from its scheduled flight path might have been a direct response to a fire. The two pilots may have turned back towards Malaysia to attempt an emergency landing at the nearest suitable airport. But no such attempt was ever made. Instead, Flight 370 kept going and remained aloft for another six hours. Some have theorized the crew might have been incapacitated by a sudden or gradual loss of cabin pressure. For instance, when Helios Airways Flight 522 failed to pressurize in August of 2005, the pilots quickly fell unconscious, yet the aircraft continued to fly on autopilot for more than two hours until it ran out of fuel. Airline pilots are of course trained for such an event. In the event of cabin depressurization, an automatic system is designed to deploy oxygen masks to give the pilots enough time to perform an emergency descent to a more breathable altitude. The data recorded by the Malaysian military radar does indeed contain altitude information, but it is highly inconsistent. In fact, a Boeing 777 is incapable of performing the extreme altitude fluctuations recorded. At one point the aircraft exceeded its maximum operating altitude by more than 15,000 feet before making a 50,000 feet nosedive in less than a minute.
Attempts to recreate these maneuvers on a flight simulator were unsuccessful, and thus the data was deemed inaccurate and unreliable. If Flight 370 did loose cabin pressure at 35,000 feet and the pilots were incapacitated before descending to a more oxygenated altitude, it might explain why the aircraft remained aloft for as long as it did. What is a bit more difficult to explain, however, are these alterations in heading. Flight simulations have established the aircraft must have been under manual control during the initial left turn as the bank angle, or inclination, of that turn, was beyond the limits of the autopilot. Subsequent turns, however, could have been either manual or automatic. But for the autopilot to have made these course corrections, someone with the requisite knowledge must have programmed it to do so. The only other alternative is that the aircraft was in fact under manual control. In late June of 2014, several news outlets reported that a special investigation had identified the captain of Flight 370 as a prime suspect. A search of the captain’s home had uncovered a flight simulator which supposedly contained a suspicious route which ended in the southern Indian Ocean. At the time, there was no official acknowledgment that such a route had been recovered, and a lengthy public report, issued by the Malaysian government in 2015, made no mention of such a discovery. Then, in 2016, confidential documents pertaining to a forensic examination conducted by the Royal Malaysia Police in May of 2014 was leaked to the media. These documents made it clear that such a route had not only been recovered but thoroughly examined. Soon thereafter, the Malaysian government confirmed the existence of this simulated flight path and this is what it looks like. It should come as no surprise that many regard this as damning evidence of premeditation, but according to investigators it is not quite so evident. The data recovered consists of seven coordinates. Two in Kuala Lumpur. Two in the Strait of Malacca. One in the Bay of Bengal. And two in the southern Indian Ocean.
The data was reconstructed from a file that had been automatically generated and saved by the simulation software a month before the incident. However, it’s not clear whether the coordinates originate from the same flight session. In other words, it might not be correct to simply trace a continuous line between these seven coordinates as they could be from separate sessions. The forensic examination by the Royal Malaysia Police simply concluded: “No activity captured conclusively indicate any kind of premeditated act pertaining to the incident of MH370.” Even so, the similarities between this simulated route and the presumed route of Flight 370 directly influenced the search operation. Australian investigators considered the possibility of someone deliberately extending the range of the flight by gliding the aircraft after fuel exhaustion. If so, the plane could have traveled an additional 200 kilometers. Alternatively, the range could have been reduced by a controlled ditching prior to fuel exhaustion. While ultimately deemed unlikely, these two scenarios did affect the search effort. If the captain steered Flight 370 off-course with the intention of crashing in a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean, his motive is an even greater mystery. Zaharie Ahmad Shah was 53 and married with three children. He had more than 18,000 hours of flight experience and a spotless track record. Investigators found no evidence of financial issues and his monthly expenses before the disappearance indicated nothing unusual. He had no history of mental illness nor had he displayed any recent changes in lifestyle or behavior. He was raised on the island of Penang which has led some to speculate the flight’s second turn to the southwest of Penang was the captain getting a final view of his hometown. Some believe a hijacking could have been politically motivated as Zaharie was an avid supporter of a democratic opposition leader who was sentenced to five years in prison mere hours before Flight 370 took off. Others point to unconfirmed reports of marital issues, but this is contradicted by the official investigation and disputed by family members. The only real inconsistency noted by the final report is that the captain failed to repeat the assigned radio frequency during the last verbal communication.
It would have been standard procedure to repeat the assigned frequency as the captain had correctly done a few minutes prior. Whether this omission is indicative of anything but a mistake is anyone’s best guess. By all accounts, Captain Zaharie was an affable and well-respected pilot who was passionate about aviation as evident by the photos and videos he shared on social media. Captain Zaharie: Hi everyone. This is a YouTube video that I’ve made Captain Zaharie: as a community service. The copilot was found to be even less conspicuous. Fariq Abdul Hamid was only 27 and due to marry a fellow pilot. He had nearly 3,000 hours of flight experience, although only 39 hours in this type of aircraft. Much like Zaharie, Fariq had no financial, mental, or interpersonal issues of note, nor was there any evidence of conflict between the two of them. Some question the plausibility of a pilot-instigated hijacking due to the apparent lack of interference by the other pilot. Well, when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702 was hijacked by the copilot in February of 2014, he did so by merely waiting for the captain to take a bathroom break before locking the cockpit door behind him. The copilot was then free to divert the Italy-bound flight to Switzerland to seek asylum. The only noteworthy piece of evidence in regards to the copilot of Flight 370 is his phone. You see, when the confidential documents were leaked, they also confirmed another long-circulated rumor. Namely, that a cellphone tower had briefly established a connection with an iPhone 5S belonging to the copilot as Flight 370 approached the island of Penang. According to investigators, it was not a phone call, as has been widely reported by the media, but merely an automatic location signal. Why this information was omitted from public reports, we may never know. So what is one to make of all of this? On the one hand, the simulated flight path seems suspicions. On the other, it is difficult to cast any substantial doubt on either of the two pilots’ character. It is equally difficult to deny a hijacking is consistent with the available evidence. Then again, we’re missing some quite major and literal pieces of evidence.
The final report issued by the Malaysian government in 2018 could not attribute the loss of communication nor diversion of Flight 370 to a malfunction. Instead, it is believed that someone manually manipulated the aircraft and its systems. For instance, investigators believe SATCOM was manually disabled by a sudden and prolonged interruption of power. Then, once power was restored, the terminal simply rebooted. Likewise, the alterations in heading are believed to be the result of manual inputs. With that being said, the uncertainty of these findings are repeatedly emphasized due to the limited evidence available, and the report does never explicitly state the flight was hijacked. In fact, no real conclusion is reached. Both the Malaysian and Australian government agree that Flight 370 crashed in the southern Indian Ocean but that the cause is indeterminable without a wreckage. The location of which has managed to elude some of the foremost aviation experts in the world as well as an impressive arsenal of cutting edge technology for more than half a decade. Authors, aviation experts, and independent investigators have all chimed in to offer their own thoughts and theories as to the nature of the crash and the location of the wreckage.
Some believe there was no crash but that the aircraft was shot down by an American naval base in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The satellite transmissions where then supposedly forged as part of a massive cover up. Others believe the aircraft turned right towards India and traveled as far north as Kazakhstan completely undetected. Debris was then supposedly planted along shorelines of southeastern Africa as part of a massive cover up. Another theory suggest the aircraft was remotely hijacked and controlled by someone on the ground. While Boeing and other companies have experimented with technology that would allow for an aircraft to be remotely controlled, no commercial airliner is known to be outfitted with such a system. On the less conspiratorial side, the assumption that Flight 370 flew in a straight line and at a constant speed after turning left towards the southern Indian Ocean might simply be incorrect. In early 2018, a French team of independent investigators proposed an alternate flight path whereby an attempted landing on Christmas Island lead to a crash site much further north than the region identified by the official investigation. While a surface search of this area was conducted about a week after the disappearance, the underwater phase never reached this far north. As of the making of this video, the search operation has been suspended, but there have been talks of potentially resuming the search. For now, it seems, the vanishing of Flight 370 will remain a mystery.