x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The who, what, when, where and why of the mystery of Flight MH370

For the past 12 days the world has been transfixed by one of the great mysteries of the 21st century - how can a commercial airliner with 239 people on board evade sophisticated tracking technology and just vanish?

Schoolboy artists in Manila in the Philippines draw a playground tribute to the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Boeing 777, whose fate has enthralled the entire world for days. Francis R Malasig / EPA
Schoolboy artists in Manila in the Philippines draw a playground tribute to the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Boeing 777, whose fate has enthralled the entire world for days. Francis R Malasig / EPA

In the 12 days since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished from the radar less than two hours into what should have been an uneventful flight to Beijing, rumours have outpaced hard information.

All that can be said is that there is no trace of the Boeing 777 and the 227 passengers and 12 crew since the early hours of March 8, beyond a satellite signal that indicated the aircraft had survived a further six and a half hours after it was first thought lost.

The disappearance of a huge passenger aircraft in an age of instant and universal communication has transfixed the world, with the dearth of facts padded out by speculation, some of it wild.

One of the foundations of any investigation is held to be the five Ws: Who is it about, what happened and when, where did it take place and, most importantly, why did it happen? Set out below is the story of Flight MH370 so far, using these principles.

Who is it about?

The pilot of the missing aircraft is Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, a Malaysian who joined the national airline in 1981 and amassed 18,365 flying hours.

Within hours of the plane’s disappearance, it was speculated that he was a fanatic, or political extremist, based on his support for Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.

Zaharie saw Anwar jailed for five years for sodomy in a controversial trial, just hours before take-off.

Zaharie’s friends and neighbours have strongly defended his character, dismissing suggestions that the father of three and grandfather of one was a religious or political extremist.

Much has been made about the three-screen 777 flight simulator in his home. The Associated Press said Zaharie is certified by Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation as a flight simulator examiner, and was very open about his home set-up.

He also has a YouTube channel with technology tutorials, including one showing how to tune air conditioning to save electricity. He subscribes to dozens of other channels including the comedian Eddie Izzard, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Many suggest this is not the behaviour of a fanatic.

The plane’s first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, has also had his personal life and psychological state heavily scrutinised. Soon after the plane disappeared, photos emerged of the Malaysian, 27, with two female passengers who he invited into the cockpit of a Kuala Lumpur-bound plane in 2011. One of the women told press it was “possibly a little bit sleazy”, leading some to question his professional ability.

But as with Zaharie, Fariq’s friends and relatives have been quick to defend him. Ahmad Asrah, head of Fariq’s local mosque, said he was is a “good boy, a good Muslim, humble and quiet”.

Yesterday Chinese officials said intelligence checks on the 153 Chinese passengers had not produced any terrorist links.

Malaysia Airlines has dismissed stories that five passengers checked-in but did not board. It said there were four passengers who had valid tickets but did not show up to check-in, a normal event on most flights.

There were 227 passengers on board MH370, including the 153 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, six Australians, four French and three Americans, including one child.

There were also 12 cabin crew, all Malaysian nationals. Two Iranian men were later found to have boarded the flight with stolen Austrian and Italian passports, but were cleared of any other illegal activity.

Why did it happen?

Initially it was feared that the aircraft had suffered a catastrophic event in flight, causing it to break apart or incapacitating the crew so that it crashed.

The Boeing 777-200 plane that carried the MH370 flight code underwent maintenance on February 23 this year, 12 days before its March 8 journey, according to Malaysia Airlines. There were “no issues on the health of the aircraft”, a statement said, and it was not due for its next check until June 19. The revelation that the jet flew for several hours after vanishing from radar has effectively ruled this theory out.

Attention has since focused on the pilot and co-pilot, suggesting one of them committed suicide by crashing the aircraft. While this has happened twice before, this event does not fit that pattern.

It seems hard to explain why either of the crew, in a suicidal state of mind, would wait several hours, flying in a complex pattern designed to evade detection, before crashing.

Most weight is being given now to a hijacking or an act of terrorism. No organisation has taken credit for the disappearance and if the plane was to be used in a dramatic September 11 style attack, it does not seem to have had a target.

It is possible that the crew or passengers attempted to take back the plane from the hijackers, causing it to crash, but no suspects have been identified on the passenger list. While investigators have not ruled out the aircraft landing, the land corridor to the north in the arc of the final satellite signal is well-covered by radar and several nations, including India, have said it could not pass over their territory undetected. The southern arc consists largely of empty ocean, suggesting the aircraft would have run out of fuel with nowhere to land.

What happened and when?

Flight MH 370 was scheduled to depart from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 00.35 on Saturday March 8, 2014 (20.35 UAE time).

Boarding began at 11.55pm on Friday March 7. The aircraft took off at 00.41 en route for an on-time arrival at Beijing Capital International Airport at 06.30.

At around 00.50, the aircraft passed through 3,000 metres, allowing passengers to unfasten their seat belts and move around the cabin. At 1:01, MH370 reached its cruising altitude of 10,700 metres (35,000 feet) over the Taman Negara national park.

At 01.07, the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars), which transmits the 777’s mechanical condition via satellite, made its final transmission, with the MH370 passing over the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula and the Gulf of Thailand.

The final communication came at 01.19, when a voice, now believed to be the co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, says: “All right, good night” to air traffic control. Two minutes later, the aircraft’s transponder, which relays its location and altitude, was switched off. At 01.30, the aircraft left Malaysian civilian radar.

The New York Times reported yesterday that the aircraft diverged from its flight path and turned west, following established navigational aids known as “way points”. According sources named as “senior American officials”. the course change would have been entered directly into the 777’s computerised Flight Management system in a series of key stokes that could only have been by someone familiar with aircraft systems. It is not known if the new “way point” was entered before or during the flight.

At 01.37, the Acars system failed to make a routine transmission, indicating it had been turned off or was no longer working.

Malaysian military radar picked up the aircraft heading west and north across the Strait of Malacca and towards India and the Andaman Sea. Contact was lost at approximately 02.17.

Nearly seven hours later, and an hour and 45 minutes after Flight MH370 should have landed in Beijing, a satellite picked up a signal from the aircraft. The information was not precise enough to identify the location or altitude, but placed the 777 on a huge arc ranging from Kazakhstan in the north and the southern Indian Ocean. No further contact was made, although the aircraft could have flown for up to an hour more. At least six earlier signals should have been picked up by the same satellite, but the authorities have said nothing about what they reveal about the plane’s movements.

Where is the aircraft?

Search and rescue operations were launched in the early hours of March 8 by both Malaysia and Vietnam and involving dozens of ships and aircraft in both the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. In the first 24 hours, an oil slick and possible debris were seen, but a connection with Flight MH370 was rapidly ruled out.

Based on evidence that the aircraft had begun to turn back, the search was expanded on March 9 to the Strait of Malacca with the assistance of the Thai navy. Chinese satellite photographs that showed objects floating in the sea and a report from an oil rig worker of a burning object falling from the sky off Vietnam were both discounted.

By May 12, the search was expanded further, to the Andaman Sea and involving India. Operations in the area were suspended on March 16, with India saying that the: “Malaysian authorities have now indicated that based on investigation, the search operations have entered a new phase.” Thailand also called off its search operations.

After the release of information that the plane had flown another six hours after final radar trace, a total of 21 countries were asked to join the search, from Kazakhstan in the north to Australia and including Myanmar, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Laos, Cambodia and Singapore and with assistance from the United States, United Kingdom and France.

On April 17, Australia announced that it would take charge of search operations in the southern Indian Ocean, while China said it had begun searching parts of its territory within the jet’s theoretical range. No trace of Flight MH370 has so far been found. The water-activated distress beacon has not activated, although experts say the device is only about 80 per cent reliable and may have sunk in deep water beyond detection. The current search area is estimated at 30 million square miles, much of it deep, empty ocean, and representing almost a sixth of the Earth’s surface.

jlangton@thenational.ae

munderwood@thenational.ae