Flight MH370 remains a mystery
In the early hours of March 8, 227 passengers and 12 crew boarded the red-eye Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, scheduled to arrive in Beijing six hours later.
Less an hour after take-off, Malaysian air traffic control received a normal sign-off from the cockpit as the plane left Malaysian airspace and headed towards Vietnam.
The plane failed to make contact with Vietnamese air-traffic controllers and, despite repeated requests from the ground, other planes and satellites, contact was never reestablished.
Six hours after leaving Kuala Lumpur, the Boeing 777 was reported missing. Exactly six months on, there is still no sign of the aircraft and no real clue as to what happened before it disappeared.
MH370 is now the world’s biggest aviation mystery. While all the electronic data retrieved so far provides a lot of answers to the what, where and when questions, it has told us nothing about the who or the why.
Who, if anyone, brought the plane down? And why did they do it? There was, and never has been, any note or statement claiming responsibility from any group or individual on or off the plane, and no emergency call from the cockpit.
After dozens of theories emerged in the immediate aftermath as to where it might be, experts are now concentrating on an area of the southern Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia.
The search is focused on a stretch of ocean floor measuring 60,000 square kilometres, an area the size of Norway, and two thirds as big as the UAE, after new data revealed the plane might be farther south than first thought. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) is leading the operation and said the search is expected to take up to a year.
The technology will be capable of mapping and photographing depths of more than 6,000 metres.
It has already taken six months to narrow down the area and establish a timeline using the information transmitted by the aircraft before and after air traffic control lost contact.
The first concrete fact is that it left Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, March 8, at 00.41 Malaysian time, scheduled to arrive in Beijing at 06.30.
Twenty minutes after take-off, at 01.01, the crew confirmed an altitude of 35,000 feet. Six minutes later it sent its final Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars) transmission, which transmits the plane’s mechanical condition via satellite.
Malaysian authorities said the final words heard by air traffic control at 01.19 were, “Goodnight Malaysian three seven zero”. It is not known whether they were spoken by Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, or First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27.
At 01.37, the routine half-hourly Acars transmission was missed, and at 02.03 Malaysia Airlines dispatch centre sent a message to the cockpit asking them to contact Vietnamese air traffic control because the plane had failed to check in as scheduled at Ho Chi Minh City. The call went unanswered, as did telephone calls made via the aircraft’s satellite link.
At the time, the airline and Vietnam’s air traffic control had no idea the plane had turned around and travelled back over Malaysia and towards the Indian Ocean.
An Acars data request sent several times to the plane shortly after 2am was not acknowledged by the plane’s satellite equipment, indicating it had been switched off. Its last contact was with a military satellite at 02.15 just south of Phuket island.
The only clues about the plane’s journey from here come from what are known as “handshakes”, automatic hourly communications between the plane and ground control. The seventh and last came at 08.19 and was a log-on request from the aircraft consistent with it charging up following a power cut.
“The interruption in electrical supply is highly likely to have been caused by fuel exhaustion. In other words we are confident the seventh handshake represents the area where the aircraft ran out of fuel before entering the ocean,” says the ATSB on its website.
But as recently as two weeks ago the Australian government revealed that new information had revealed the plane could be hundreds of kilometres south of the previous search area.
“The search area remains the same, but ... some of the information we now have suggests to us that areas a little farther to the south, within the search area but a little further to the south, may be of particular interest and priority,” said the Australian deputy prime minister Warren Truss.
“This information comes from further refinement of the satellite data. It remains on the seventh arc, that is there is a very very strong view that the aircraft will be resting on this seventh arc.”
An area of 87,000 square kilometres has been searched, uncovering two underwater volcanoes and depths up to 1,500 metres, deeper than previously recorded. Debris spotted by satellites provided a glimmer of hope, but closer inspection revealed they were not part of the plane.
In June, Martin Dolan of the ATSB said there was theoretically an infinite range of flight paths “of all sorts of shapes and changes of course” the aircraft could have taken.
“But to try and refine those we had to make some provisional assumptions about the behaviour of the aircraft, which were then tested against the data and analysis,” he said.
“And the best fit and the highest probability flight path is one that has it on a straight course and the sort of straight course that would be associated with the aircraft being operated on autopilot. So by iterative process we have concluded it was on autopilot, just as we can conclude that at the seventh arc it ran out of fuel”.
An ATSB report into the crash examined several possible crash scenarios to help narrow the search. Comparing data from other crashes it ruled that “the final stages of the unresponsive crew/hypoxia event type appeared to best fit the available evidence for the final period of MH370’s flight” but did not identify a possible cause.
The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, known collectively as the black box, should provide the answers. They record a minimum of 25 hours of data and are used by trained investigators to establish exactly what happened prior to a crash.
Governments and official agencies have all resisted speculating about who might be behind the disappearance. There were no obvious skeletons in the closets of the all-Malaysian crew, nor in any of the passengers’.
Checks on the 153 Chinese passengers did not reveal any terrorist links, and two Iranian men found travelling with stolen Italian and Austrian passports were cleared of any other crimes.
In the absence of hard facts and not one single piece of the aircraft found, rumours, conjecture and conspiracy theories have multiplied.
The latter range from the ever-so-slightly plausible to what most people would consider categorically impossible.
One of the more outlandish of recent suggestions was that the doomed MH17 flight, shot down in Ukranian airspace on July 17, was in fact the missing MH370 airliner.
There is a growing list of books in which authors trying to shed light on the mystery.
One of the first to be released was Flight MH370: The Mystery by British author Nigel Cawthorne. He outlines many of the theories, from the less plausible theory of alien involvement to the marginally more believable idea of it being shot down during a military exercise gone wrong.
A quick search on Amazon for MH370 pulls up 126 hits, most of which are self-published ebooks.
Ebook MH370: A Novella features two Muslim men using stolen British passports and going by the names Andy and Bart. Other titles include the fictional I survived flight MH370 and Psychic Predictions about the missing Malaysia airplane flight MH370 by the Bulgarian self-styled “Skype clairvoyant”, Dimitrinka Staikova.
A more recent offering is Goodnight Malaysia: The truth behind the loss of flight 370, written by a journalist and a commercial pilot. Their website, www.goodnightmalaysianflt370.com says the disappearance was a deliberate and calculated act of murder/suicide by the pilot and “should never have been allowed to happen”.
Soon there may be films. The trailer for Indian director Rupesh Paul’s The Vanishing Act premiered at Cannes Film Festival and has already received more than 450,000 hits on YouTube, despite featuring the wrong type of plane – a Boeing 747 rather than a 777.
For the families of the 239 people on board MH370, books and films provide no comfort. Only when the plane is found and the flight recorder recovered will they have some answers about the fate of their loved ones.
Updated: September 7, 2014 04:00 AM