The MH370 Mystery

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Modern airliners are festooned with electronic gizmos designed to ensure that they (and everyone else) know where they are at all times. Military and civilian radar systems constantly monitor the skies around the world. The idea that a 200 ton airliner with 239 people on-board could simply vanish without trace seems ludicrous. Or at least it did until March 8th 2014 when that was precisely what happened to Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Despite one of the largest (and most expensive) search operations ever undertaken, MH370 has not been found.

There has been intense speculation about what happened to this aircraft. A number of books and innumerable articles have been written on the subject. However, the uncomfortable truth remains that we don’t know what happened to the missing Boeing 777 and it seems possible that we will never be entirely certain. However, by analysing the available evidence, we can at least try to build a picture of what may have happened that night in the skies over South East Asia.

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Background

It is inevitable that any account of MH370 will involve discussion of modern commercial aircraft and operations. To understand the significance of events you need to have at least a basic knowledge of these. This section provides the background information you will need to follow the story of MH370. If you are already familiar with these things, you may want to skip directly to the “Chronology” section which follows.

The aircraft designated as flight MH370 was a Boeing 777-200ER, registration number 9M-MRO which had amassed a total of 53,465 flying hours since being delivered to Malaysian Airlines in May 2002. The Boeing 777 is a modern, wide-bodied airliner which, until the loss of MH370, had an almost flawless safety record. When it took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in the early hours of 8th March 2014, flight MH370 was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew and its destination was Beijing, China.

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Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 9M-MRO taking off in 2012

Like most modern airliners, MH370 carried two pilots. Although the crew who fly commercial aircraft are often described in the press as “pilot” and “co-pilot”, these terms are not used in the airline business. One pilot (generally the more experienced and senior) is the Pilot in Command. As the name suggests, this person has overall responsibility for the flight and authority over all on-board. This pilot is generally referred to as the “Captain”. The pilot who is not in command is generally referred to as the “First Officer.”

However, either of these pilots may actually fly the aircraft. On a route such as Kuala Lumpur-Beijing, it is common practice for one pilot to fly the aircraft on the outward leg and the other to fly the return leg. The pilot who is actually flying the aircraft is designated as “Pilot Flying” and the other as “Pilot Monitoring”. The Pilot Monitoring is responsible for radio calls. Therefore, it is generally possible to deduce who is flying at any particular time by monitoring radio messages. However, this isn’t 100% reliable. If one of the pilots leaves the cockpit for any reason, the other must both fly the aircraft and make radio calls. The situation for Malaysian Airlines aircraft is also slightly different. The convention in this airline is that the Captain always taxis the aircraft on the ground regardless of who takes off, flies and lands. The flight crew of MH370 were:

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Captain: Zaharie Ahmad Shah. Age 53, Malaysian with a total of 18,365 flying hours, 8,659 on the 777. Joined Malaysian Airlines in 1981 and served as a Training and Rating Captain. Married with three children.

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First Officer: Fariq Abdul Hamid. Age 27, Malaysian with a total of 2,763 flying hours, 39 on the 777. Joined Malaysian Airlines in 2007. Single but engaged to be married.

First Officer Fariq Hamid was relatively inexperienced in the 777. He had previously flown smaller Boeing 737 aircraft for Malaysian Airlines and MH370 was the first flight where he was allowed to take the role of First Officer on a 777 without a third (supervising) pilot in the cockpit. The assumption is that First Officer Hamid would have flown the first leg to Beijing. Hamid had flown into Kuala Lumpur many times, but had never flown into Beijing. As an experienced Training Captain, Captain Shah would have been aware of this and would most likely have given Hamid an opportunity to gain experience of flying on this unfamiliar route. This seems to be confirmed because Hamid handled radio calls prior to take-off (when Shah would have been taxiing the aircraft) and Shah handled radio calls after take-off (when Hamid was presumably flying).

All modern commercial airliners carry at least one ATC (Air Traffic Control) Transponder as part of their secondary radar system. The ATC Transponder identifies the aircraft on air traffic radar and allows the radar operator to see details of the type of aircraft, its height and speed as well as information about its flight plan. In the 777 the transponder switch is located on the centre unit between the two pilots. If the transponder is switched off, an airliner is much more difficult to see on air traffic radar and the air traffic controller will have no information to identify the aircraft or to read course or altitude details.

081117-N-9950J-004 EAST CHINA SEA (Nov. 17, 2008) Air Traffic Controller 2nd Class Erin McHenry, of Wichita, Kan., and Air Traffic Controller Airman Apprentice Adam Minkel, of Pipestone, Minn., track aircraft on a radar console in the amphibious air traffic control center aboard the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). Air-traffic controllers aboard Essex monitor all air traffic within a 220-mile radius. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg Johnson (Released)

In addition to the transponder, MH370 was also equipped with three VHF radios and a satellite communications (SATCOM) system. The SATCOM system is principally used for the automated transfer of data from the aircraft to the ground via ACARS, the Aircraft Communication and Reporting System. ACARS is used to send updates to the airline including the speed and height of the aircraft, the amount of fuel it has onboard and its expected tie of arrival. Other companies can also be given access to ACARS data – for example, Rolls Royce, the manufacturers of the 777s engines, received data on engine performance from ACARS on Malaysian airlines aircraft and used this to predict engine servicing requirements. This information can also be used to identify engine faults, often before the flight crew are aware that anything is wrong. The ACARS system on MH370 was programmed to automatically transmit updates to Malaysian Airlines every thirty minutes.

Aircraft navigate using beacons on the ground (or sea) which transmit an electronic signal. These beacons are also used to define the routes that most commercial aircraft follow. Each beacon is identified using a unique five letter code. The flight plan for MH370 required it first to fly from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to beacon IGARI, located approximately mid-way between Malaysia and Vietnam in the South China Sea and then on over waypoint BITOD to the north-east. Waypoint IGARI also marks the demarcation between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace. As an airliner passes from the airspace controlled by one country into the airspace of another, the aircraft must make radio contact with the radar operator of the country which controls the area it is entering. Flight MH370 was expected to handover from Lumpur Radar (the Malaysian regional air traffic control centre) to Ho Chi Minh Control (The Vietnamese regional air traffic control centre) as it passed waypoint IGARI.

There are strict rules for the issuing of official warnings about the status of an aircraft in flight if it fails to make an expected radio call. These warnings are broadcast to all regional Air Traffic Control centres. The lowest level of warning is INCERFA, which indicates uncertainty about the location of an aircraft. The rules state that an INCERFA warning should be raised if an expected call from an aircraft is more than three minutes overdue. The next level of warning is ALERTFA where there is concern about the safety of an aircraft and/or a failure to communicate. The final level is DETRESFA where there is considered to be grave concern about the safety of an aircraft.

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An airliner preparing for take-off makes initial radio contact with the airport Air Traffic Control (ATC) Delivery service. When the aircraft is ready to push back from its parking space, radio calls are taken over by the airport ATC Ground Control. Ground Control gives the aircraft taxi instructions and provides the final clearance to take-off. When it has taken off, the aircraft communicates with the airport ATC Approach/Departure Control who provide it with initial climb and route instructions. Generally within five to ten minutes of taking off the aircraft is handed to the regional ATC service which will remain in contact until the aircraft leaves that country’s airspace. When an aircraft leaves the airspace of one country, the regional ATC service will confirm the frequency on which the aircraft should contact ATC for the next country. The aircraft is expected to immediately make contact with the next regional ATC service. This procedure ensures that at all times an aircraft is in contact with one element of ATC.

Chronology (all times are Malaysia Standard Time)

7th March 2014

22:50pm Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah signs in for duty.

23:15pm First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid signs in for duty.

8th March 2014

The information on radio calls below is taken from the transcript of communications released by the Malaysian Government in early April 2014. This is now generally accepted as an accurate record of radio calls. First radio contact between ATC and MH370 was at 00:25. We join the radio conversation fifteen minutes later as MH370 is awaiting take-off clearance. Later analysis confirmed that radio calls up to take-off were made by First Officer Hamid and radio calls after take-off were made by Captain Shah.

00:38:43 Lumpur Tower: “370 line up 32 Right Alfa 10.”

MH370:Line up 32 Right Alfa 10 Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

00:40:38 Lumpur Tower:370 32 Right Cleared for take-off. Good night.”

MH370:32 Right Cleared for take-off Malaysian Three Seven Zero. Thank you. Bye.”

00:41 MH370 takes off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Runway 32 Right.

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In the cockpit of a similar Boeing 777-200

00:42:05 MH370: “Departure Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

00:42:10 Lumpur Approach: “Malaysian Three Seven Zero selamat pagi identified. Climb flight level one eight zero cancel SID turn right direct to IGARI.”

00:42:48 MH370: “Okay level one eight zero direct IGARI Malaysian one, err Three Seven Zero.”

00:42:52 Lumpur Approach: “Malaysian Three Seven Zero contact Lumpur Radar One Three Two Six good night.”

MH370:Night One Three Two Six Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

00:46:51 MH370: “Lumpur Control Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

00:46:51 Lumpur Radar: Malaysian Three Seven Zero Lumpur radar. Good Morning climb flight level two five zero.

00:46:54 MH370: “Morning level two five zero Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

00:50:06 Lumpur Radar: “Malaysian Three Seven Zero climb flight level three five zero.”

00:50:09 MH370: “Flight level three five zero Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

01:01:14 MH370: “Malaysian Three Seven Zero maintaining level three five zero.”

01:01:19 Lumpur Radar: “Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

01:07 Routine ACARS transmission of data showed MH370 to be flying at 35,000 feet at Mach .82 and with 43,800 kilos of fuel remaining. The next ACARS transmission was due at 01:37 but no further ACARS transmissions were received from MH370.

01:07:55 MH370: “Malaysian…Three Seven Zero maintaining level three five zero.”

01:08:00 Lumpur Radar: “Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

01:19:24 Lumpur Radar: Malaysian Three Seven Zero contact Ho Chi Minh One Two Zero decimal Niner Good Night.”

01:19:29 MH370: “Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

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Approximate location of MH370 at 01:19 and planned route.

There was no further radio contact with MH370 after 01:19. Before we move on to the rest of the chronology, it’s worth highlighting a couple of things about these last radio communications. Three of the last radio calls made by Captain Shah do not comply with recognised radio procedure. At 01:01:14 and again six minutes later at 01:07:55 Captain Shah informed Lumpur Radar that MH370 was maintaining an altitude of 35,000 feet. Convention is that an aircraft will provide altitude information to ATC only if it is unable to reach an assigned altitude for any reason or if the radar controller specifically asks for confirmation. Aircraft do not generally make radio contact to confirm that they have reached their assigned altitude, partly to keep radio calls to busy air traffic controllers to a minimum and also because the controller can see the aircraft’s altitude on his radar if the ATC Transponder is switched on. To make a call such as this once is unusual. To make two such calls in the space of around six minutes is very odd indeed.

In the last radio call received from MH370, Captain Shah does not read back the frequency on which he has just been requested to contact Ho Chi Minh Control. The correct response would have been “Good night. One Two Zero decimal Niner. Malaysian Three Seven Zero.” Procedures which call for aircraft to avoid making unnecessary calls to ATC and which require the reading back of information given by ATC are rigidly enforced. For an experienced Captain to ignore procedure three times in less than eighteen minutes is notably strange.

01:21 ATC Transponder in MH370 stops transmitting.

01:35 Ho Chi Minh controller contacts Lumpur Radar to report that he hasn’t heard from MH370.

01:35 – 07:00 (approx.) Controllers in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, China and Singapore talk with each other and other aircraft in the area to try to discover what has happened to MH370.

02:00 (approx.) Ho Chi Minh Control issues INCERFA alert for MH370.

05:30 Lumpur Radar watch supervisor notifies the Kuala Lumpur Air Rescue Co-Ordination Centre of concerns about MH370.

06:30 Scheduled arrival time of MH370 in Beijing.

07:00 (approx.) Lumpur Radar issues DETRESFA alert for MH370.

07:24 Official announcement from Malaysian Airlines:

Malaysia Airlines confirms that flight MH370 has lost contact with Subang Air Traffic Control at 2:40 on 8th March. MH370 was expected to land in Beijing at 6:30 the same day. The flight was carrying a total of 227 passengers (including 2 infants) 12 crew members. Malaysia Airlines is currently working with the authorities who have activated their Search and Rescue team to locate the aircraft.

Note: the time given in this press release for the last contact with MH370 is incorrect – this was at 01:19.

08:00 (approx.) Search operations involving ships and aircraft from Malaysia, Vietnam and China begin in the South China Sea between Malaysia and Vietnam, the location of the aircraft during its final radio call to Lumpur Radar.

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Initial search area.

22:30. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) informed the Kuala Lumpur Air Rescue Co-Ordination Centre that their primary military radar at Butterworth air base had tracked an unknown aircraft flying across the Malaysian Peninsula, along the Strait of Malacca, over the Andaman Sea and round the tip of Sumatra before making a final turn to the south at approximately 02:22. After this the aircraft was no longer visible to Malaysian radar. This was the first indication that MH370 might have deviated substantially from its planned route. Standing instructions call for any unidentified aircraft entering Malaysian airspace to be identified. If this cannot be done by making radio contact, fighters will be scrambled to visually identify the aircraft. This is what should have happened when this aircraft approached Malaysian airspace in the early hours of 8th March. What seems to have happened was that military radar operators simply assumed that the unidentified aircraft was an airliner and did not send fighters to intercept, a failure which caused considerable embarrassment to the Malaysian authorities when it became known later.

According to this radar information, the unknown aircraft turned through almost 180° soon after the time of the last radio call from MH370 and began flying back towards Malaysia. Because of this, it was immediately suspected that this unknown aircraft was actually MH370. There seems to be some doubt about the ability of the military radar systems to accurately plot the aircraft’s height, though it did seem that this aircraft initially ascended to 45,000 feet and then, as it approached the Malaysian coast at Kota Bharu, descended to around 31,000 feet and increased speed before climbing once again to around 32,500 feet. When the aircraft crossed the Malaysian Peninsula, it did so very close to the border with Thailand (indeed it briefly crossed into Thai airspace on more than one occasion). This could have contributed to confusion on the part of military radar operators who may have assumed that the aircraft was being controlled by Thai ATC.

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MH370 planned route and actual route plotted by military radar.

As a result of this report to Kuala Lumpur Air Rescue Co-Ordination Centre, Malaysian ships and aircraft were instructed to also begin searching in the Malacca Strait and to the west of Malaysia on 9th March. However, information about a possible deviation from route was not made public at this time.

9th March 2014

Interpol confirmed that two of the passengers on MH370 were using passports that had been reported as stolen in Thailand. Photographs of these passengers (both men) taken by airport closed circuit television cameras were released.

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Passengers on MH370 traveling on stolen passports.

10th March 2014

In a press conference, Dato’ Sri Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Director General of Civil Aviation in Malaysia announced:

We also conducted search in the areas north of the Straits of Malacca as we do not want to discount the possibilities of the aircraft turn-back to the Straits of Malacca.

This was the first time that the possibility that MH370 might have turned back from its planned route had been publicly raised. In a later press conference the same day Mr Rahman announced:

Yes, there are issues about the passengers that did not fly on the aircraft – there are five of them… We have to remove the baggage they checked in on the aircraft. We have done so.

11th March 2014

Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, Inspector General of Malaysian Police issued a new statement about passengers who were previously claimed to have checked in but not boarded the aircraft:

There was no five passengers who checked in and did not board. Everybody who booked this flight boarded the plane.

Iranian police identified the two men traveling on MH370 using stolen passports as Iranian Nationals: Nour Mohammad Mehrdad (19) and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza (29). Neither man had any known terrorist connections. Both were thought to be traveling to Europe to seek political asylum (both were booked on a connecting flight from Beijing to Amsterdam).

12th March 2014

Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian Defence Minster made yet another contradictory statement about passengers on MH370:

Everyone who checked in to flight MH370 boarded the plane. Four passengers did not show up at check-in. No baggage was offloaded.

Subsequent investigation appears to confirm that this last statement is correct. Four passengers who had booked and paid for seats on MH370 did not turn up at the airport. All passengers who checked-in, boarded the flight.

During the continuing search in the South China Sea, debris and oil slicks had been found, but nothing that could be positively identified as coming from MH370. Then, later on 12th March the Malaysian Government announced:

“When the PM ordered the search area expanded on Saturday 8th and no trace of the aircraft had been found, we examined our military radar records for the new search area. We discovered the possibility that MH370 had passed over the Strait of Malacca.”

This was stunning news for the ships and aircraft from ten countries which were currently scouring the South China Sea for signs of MH370 – it appeared that they were looking in completely the wrong place. The focus of the search immediately shifted to the area west of Malaysia.

14th March 2014

The Malaysian Prime Minister finally confirmed that the unknown aircraft tracked by military radar was flight MH370, that its transponder had been switched off and that the aircraft’s ACARS system had been disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia. However, even though the ACARS system was disabled, there was still communication between the aircraft’s SATCOM system and an Inmarsat satellite in orbit 22,000 miles above the Indian Ocean. The Prime Minister confirmed that the last recorded contact between the satellite and the aircraft (which could only happen while the aircraft was still flying) took place at 08:19 on 8th March, seven hours after the last radio contact with MH370.

14th – 24th March 2014

It was revealed that there was an automatic connection between the SATCOM system on MH370 and the Inmarsat satellite approximately every hour, even though no data was sent or received by ACARS. These checks, known as “handshakes”, happened at 02:25, 03:41, 04:41, 05:41, 06:41, 08:11 and 08:19. Basically, the handshake confirms that communications are still working by the aircraft or satellite saying “Are you there?” and the other system replying “I’m here.” Inmarsat’s Headquarters in London were asked to analyse the data from these handshakes to see if anything could be deduced from them about the aircraft’s location. The fact that these handshakes took place and that they could possibly be used to provide location information was not known even by experienced pilots and airline technicians. It only became known due to the work done by Inmarsat following the disappearance of MH370.

After detailed analysis, Inmarsat announced that they had produced a series of arcs through which the aircraft must have passed at the time of each handshake. This produced two curved “corridors” through which the aircraft must have passed. One led to the north from the last point of contact and one to the south. However, the corridor to the north would have taken the aircraft over China and Kazakhstan. Radar in these countries had picked up no unusual radar contacts and for this reason it was assumed that the aircraft must have flown south after the last radar contact at 02:22. This was good news – there was now some idea of where MH370 had gone. The bad news was that even the southern “corridor” was very wide, covering 2.2 million square miles of sea over one of the most barren and isolated areas on the planet.

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Corridor” showing the likely flight path of MH370 according to Inmarsat data. However, the aircraft could have flown either north or south after last known radar contact off the west coast of Malaysia.

Inmarsat spent more time refining the data and referring to this work on 24th March the Malaysian Prime Minister announced:

“Using a type of analysis never before used in an investigation of this sort, they have been able to shed more light on MH370s flight patch. MH370 flew along the southern corridor, and its last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth.

This is a remote location far from any landing sites. It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”

25th March 2014 to present

The Inmarsat engineers continued to analyse data and announced that the first and last handshakes (at 02:25 and 08:19) were different. These were attempts by the SATCOM system in the aircraft to connect with the satellite. All the other handshakes were automatic attempts by the satellite to connect with the aircraft’s SATCOM system. The first contact at 02:25 (just after the last Malaysian military radar contact with MH370 at 02:22) appeared to be an attempt by the aircraft system to re-establish contact with the satellite following a re-boot, probably caused by an interruption in power supply. Inmarsat were not able to say what might have caused this interruption to the power supply other than it was not caused by the unit being switched off in the cockpit. The last contact was almost certainly caused by a similar situation as the 777 ran out of fuel. In that case the SATCOM system would briefly lose power until the emergency power system kicked in and it re-booted. This seemed to confirm that, at 08:19, MH370 was falling out of the sky.

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Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion aircraft involved in the initial search for MH370

A massive air, sea and underwater search in the area defined by the satellite data was carried out from Perth, Australia. As Inmarsat engineers further refined their data, they became more confident about the final location of MH370 and the search area narrowed. The main focus of the search was the underwater locator beacons on MH370 which produced pings that should allow the aircraft to be located. However, no trace of MH370 or any debris was discovered and the batteries in the beacons were known to produce sufficient power to continue transmitting for only 30 days. On 28th April, the initial search was called off. Only much later was it revealed that the batteries that should have powered one of the two locator beacons on MH370 had not been working for more than a year before the aircraft disappeared.

In place of the original surface search a more detailed and slower bathymetric survey using sonar was started. This involved underwater mapping of a wider search area in the hope that wreckage from MH370 could be found on the seabed. However, this is one of the most remote parts of the ocean with valleys up to 20,000 feet deep and vast underwater mountain ranges. Where sonar picked up underwater contacts, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) were sent down for a closer inspection. Several previously unknown shipwrecks were detected during this phase of the search, but there was no trace of the wreckage of MH370.

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Recovering the Boeing 777 flaperon washed ashore on Réunion

Towards the end of July 2015 a beachcomber on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean west of Madagascar found a piece of what looked like aircraft debris on the shore. He reported his find to the authorities and the piece of debris was flown to France for detailed examination at the DGA Aeronautical Technical Center. In August it was announced that there was a “very strong supposition” that the piece belonged to MH370. The piece of debris was identified as a flaperon from a Boeing 777. No other aircraft of this type is missing or known to have lost a flaperon so it difficult to see that this could be anything but a part from MH370. In addition, oceanographic experts concluded that currents in the Indian Ocean could possibly have taken floating debris from the presumed crash location to Réunion and that shells found attached to the flaperon belong to a species found in the southern Indian Ocean. Analysis also noted that the flaperon most likely became detached from the aircraft while it was in a lowered position, i.e. the position you would expect it to be in during approach and landing.

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  1. Réunion Island, Boeing 777 flaperon found

2. Rodrigues Island, possible MH370 debris found

3. Mozambique, probable MH370 debris found

4. South Africa, possible MH370 debris found

Other debris has since washed ashore in Mozambique. Two recovered parts (a flap track fairing segment and a horizontal stabilizer panel segment) were confirmed in April 2016 by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) to be “almost certainly from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft, registered 9M-MRO.” Other debris has washed ashore on the southern coast of South Africa and most recently on the Island of Rodrigues, east of Mauritius. To date, none of this debris recovered in the last two locations has been positively identified as coming from MH370, but the locations of these discoveries certainly accord with where ocean currents might be expected to wash ashore debris from the presumed crash site in the southern Indian Ocean.

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The disappearance of MH370 is baffling, so it’s no surprise that theories about what happened to it started to circulate almost immediately. These have continued since. There are five main theories:

  1. That one of the pilots deliberately flew MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean until it ran out of fuel and crashed.
  2. That MH370 was hi-jacked and was flown (or one or both pilots were forced to fly) to an unknown destination.
  3. That MH370 was accidentally shot down during a military exercise.
  4. That MH370 was somehow flown by remote control to an unknown destination.
  5. That MH370 suffered an unknown technical failure which resulted in its loss.

Let’s look at these in turn.

Theory 1 was the most discussed in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance of MH370 and the finger of blame was generally pointed at Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. Captain Shah, it was said, had severe marital difficulties which had led to him separating from his wife and children (on the very morning of the flight according to some sources), he was said to have a close connection to a Malaysian politician who was facing imprisonment on charges of homosexuality, he had recently purchased a large life insurance policy and most damning of all, he was said to have built himself a flight simulator on which he had rehearsed a flight to the southern Indian Ocean.

However, none of these things hold up when you look at them more closely. First of all, there is no evidence that Captain Shah’s marriage was in difficulty. Shah owned two houses in Kuala Lumpur. A larger house on the outskirts where his wife and children lived during the week and a smaller house close to the airport which he used when he was flying. Captain Shah stayed at the house close to the airport on 7th March while his wife and children stayed in the larger house. It was this fact which led some reporters to believe that Shah had separated from his family. In an interim report issued in March 2015 following detailed investigation of both pilots, the Malaysian Government noted:

“The Captain’s ability to handle stress at work and home was good. There is no known history of apathy, anxiety or irritability. There were no significant changes in his lifestyle, interpersonal conflicts or family stresses.

There were no behavioural signs of social isolation, change in habits or interest, self-neglect, drug or alcohol abuse of the Captain, First Officer and the cabin crew.”

The report also noted that Captain Shah had not (as had been claimed in some news stories) purchased a new life insurance policy in the period before 8th March and that analysis of video footage of Captain Shah entering the cockpit showed that he was:

“Well groomed and attired. The gait, posture, facial expressions and mannerism were his normal characteristics.”

Captain Shah was certainly known to be a supporter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. In 2012, after a long trial, Ibrahim was acquitted of charges of homosexual practice. However, on March 7th 2014 the acquittal was overturned by the Court of Appeal which left Ibrahim facing up to five years imprisonment (after further appeals, Ibrahim was imprisoned in February 2015). However, there is nothing to suggest that Shah was any sort of fanatic or zealot who would take this a cue to kill himself and 238 other people. Friends later described his reaction to the announcement on 7th March as “upset”. As motives for suicide and murder, neither Captain Shah’s marriage or political connections look like strong contenders.

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Captain Shah in front of his flight simulator. This is a still from a YouTube video published by Captain Shah in which he explains how to service air conditioning units.

And then there is the flight simulator. Captain Shah used a personal computer on which he ran Microsoft Flight Simulator and attached to which were a yoke and pedals, instruments and three monitors. It was an expensive but fairly common setup which you can probably find replicated in hundreds if not thousands of bedrooms and basements around the world. After the disappearance of MH370 the computer was examined by the FBI (the Malaysian Police apparently lacked the expertise to do this). At the end of March it was announced that the FBI had found that there was “nothing suspicious about the simulator or its use.” In June it was announced that the recovery of overwritten data showed that the simulator had been used for flights to islands in the Indian Ocean but that it also showed flights on many other routes and no clear pattern emerged. Rumours continue to suggest that the computer contained specific plans for a flight to the southern Indian Ocean which match the last flight of MH370, but this does not appear to be supported by evidence.

It was also noted in press reports after the loss of MH370 that Captain Shah had made no social engagements after 8th March, though this has not been confirmed. The absence of any clear motive and the lack of evidence of planning on Captain Shah’s flight simulator do not support the theory that he deliberately flew MH370 off course.

What then of First Officer Hamid? We know relatively little about Fariq Abdul Hamid and certainly nothing that would suggest that he was suicidal. Hamid was a graduate of the Langkawi Aerospace Flying Academy. While at the academy he met Nadira Ramli, a female student also undergoing pilot training. The two remained friends after leaving the Academy (Nadira Ramli became a Captain with Air Asia) and by the beginning of 2014 they were engaged.

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First Officer Hamid’s Fiancée, Air Asia Captain Nadira Ramli

In the weeks that followed the disappearance of MH370 it was noted that Hamid had a relatively small social media presence and some commentators interpreted this as sinister. If so, then most of us who are over fifty may well be regarded as a security risk. Two South African women later came forward to say that, on a Malaysian Airlines flight in December 2011 on which Hamid had been First Officer, they were allowed to spend the entire flight in the cockpit. They showed photographs which seemed to confirm this and described the encounter as “sleazy”, also noting that both Hamid and the Captain smoked throughout the flight. This was certainly a gross breach of security and procedure but the blame must be directed at the Captain on that flight, not Hamid and there is nothing to suggest that this event was linked in any way to unauthorized persons being allowed to enter the cockpit of MH370.

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Jonti Roos and Jaan Maree with First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid after their flight in the cockpit of a Malaysian Airlines aircraft, December 2011

In the immediate aftermath of the disappearance, there were also reports that First Officer Hamid had attempted to make a call from his mobile telephone sometime after last radio contact with MH370. However, subsequent investigation showed that this was not necessarily the case – if Hamid’s phone had been inadvertently been left switched on, it may have activated as it flew within range of a cell phone tower as MH370 crossed Malaysia.

If there is little to support the theory that one of the pilots deliberately flew MH370 to destruction, what about the possibility of a hi-jacking? Unfortunately, there is an almost complete absence of evidence to support this theory. That hasn’t prevented claims that MH370 was hijacked by Muslim terrorists and flown to Kabul. Or by Russians acting on the orders of Vladimir Putin who flew it to Kazakhstan. Or possibly by another group entirely who flew it to somewhere in China. Or by yet another group who flew it to destruction in the southern Indian Ocean. The problem is that these theories are not supported by anything other than speculation. And to reach China, Kazakhstan or Afghanistan, MH370 would have to have overflown several countries which have extensive military radar systems. None of these systems detected MH370. Add to that the fact that no credible claim has been made by any group over the hijacking, and it doesn’t look as if this is a tenable theory.

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Just 71 days after the disappearance, the first book, Flight MH370: The Mystery was published. Written by Nigel Cawthorne this book claims that MH370 was accidentally shot down during a top secret Thai/US military exercise. An interesting idea backed up by a whole lot of unfounded speculation and precisely zero evidence. Probably the best thing I can say about this book and the theory it supports is to quote one of the many negative reviews which greeted its publication: “Next time you’re in a bookshop, buy any book other than this. I guarantee it won’t be worse.” Stupid book, stupid theory.

And next we have an even more stupid theory. That secret drone technology was somehow used to fly MH370 off course to a secret location. Which might be in Afghanistan or possibly Diego Garcia Island depending on which version of the drone theory you believe. In one version Afghan militants used parts of a crashed US drone to build a machine capable of taking control of a 777 in flight. In another, the US government (for not terribly well explained or credible reasons) flew MH370 to a US airbase on the island of Diego Garcia where it remains hidden in a secret hanger. Or possibly it was later flown onwards by remote control to crash somewhere else. “Evidence” for this last theory comes from a sighting by a number of people on the Maldives of a large aircraft with red markings which overflew the islands at a low altitude on 8th March. Which ignores the facts that a) you’d have to be spectacularly inept to fly a stolen aircraft at low altitude over the only inhabited islands for hundreds of miles and b) the Head of the Maldives Civil Aviation Authority interviewed witnesses later and concluded that what they had seen was a Bombardier Dash-8 aircraft operated by local airline Maldivian flying on an unusual route.

The drone theory is also sometimes associated with the idea that MH370 was somehow later re-cycled as Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 which was shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile over the Ukraine on 17th July 2014. Despite people attempting to use photographs of the wreckage of MH17 to “prove” that it was actually MH370, it is clearly not – amongst other things, MH17 was an older model of 777 which was built in 1997 and the wreckage in Ukraine is clearly of an older type of 777. The destruction of a second Malaysian Airlines 777 in 2014 was a horrible coincidence, but nothing more. And if you believe that it’s possible to take the equipment used to control a drone (which is, in effect a large R/C aircraft) and modify it to hack into the controls of a modern airliner, then I can’t think of anything useful to tell you. Except that it’s not possible.

Which leaves the theory of a technical problem. There’s an issue here too, because this must involve a sudden, catastrophic failure which takes out all of MH370s communication systems but which leaves the crew able to control the aircraft while it remains capable of flying for another seven hours. Is this even possible? A fire has been suggested as a possibility. A fire on an aircraft in-flight is certainly very serious and has caused the loss of more than one aircraft. And in the cargo hold of MH370 were 220 kilos of lithium-ion batteries for Motorola, China. This type of battery has been known to suffer from thermal runaway where the batteries overheat and spontaneously start to burn, so that does provide one potential cause of fire. Such fires can produce toxic fumes which can quickly incapacitate or kill, but there has never been a case where this has happened so quickly on an aircraft that the crew were unable to make a distress call. Also, for one hour, while MH370 was being tracked by military radar, it seemed to be flown under intelligent control. If the crew were incapacitated or dead but the autopilot was engaged, the aircraft would simply continue to fly on the route to Beijing. If the crew were incapacitated or dead but the autopilot was disengaged or damaged, the aircraft would crash. MH370 did neither of these things – it made at least three controlled turns after the loss of radio contact that seemed to show that it was being deliberately flown by a human, not the autopilot. For these reasons a fire seems unlikely.

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Inside the E&E Bay on a Boeing 777

Another possibility that has been suggested is the explosion of an oxygen bottle in the aircraft’s Electrical and Electronic (E&E) Bay. This bay runs under the floor of the 777 from the front of the first-class compartment to the cockpit. It contains the VHF radios, the ATC Transponder and the control units for the ACARS system. It also houses a large oxygen bottle which supplies the pilot’s oxygen masks. If the oxygen cylinder were to explode (and there have been cases of this on aircraft in the past, though not on the 777), it could destroy all the aircraft’s communications equipment and possibly injure or incapacitate the pilots. It might also de-pressurise the aircraft which could quickly incapacitate or kill most of the passengers and flight attendants. So, not an impossible scenario, but, just like the fire theory, it seems to fall down because we know that someone was flying the aircraft for at least one hour after it turned back. This means that at least one pilot was conscious and could presumably have been able to descend to a safe altitude to avoid issues with the lack of oxygen and could have used a mobile telephone to make contact with the Malaysian Authorities as they overflew the Malaysian Peninsula. But this didn’t happen. It’s relatively easy to imagine a technical failure which destroyed all of MH370’s communication equipment. It’s much less simple to imagine a situation where this happens and one or more pilots are still able to fly the aircraft but they don’t attempt to return to Kuala Lumpur or attempt to use a mobile telephone to let someone know what is happening to them.

rwthoughts

First of all, let’s review what we actually know about the flight of MH370:

At 01:01 and again at 01:07 Captain Shah made radio calls to Lumpur Radar informing them that MH370 was maintaining an altitude of 35,000 feet. These were unexpected and unusual. Up to 01:01 all radio calls were routine and normal.

At 01:07 the ACARS system on MH370 made a routine connection and transfer of data.

At 01:19 Captain Shah made the last radio call received from MH370. This should have included a read-back of the frequency on which MH370 was to contact Ho Chi Minh Control, but it did not.

At 01:20 the ATC Transponder on MH370 stopped transmitting. We don’t know if this was because it was switched off or because it suffered some form of technical problem.

At 01:21 (approx.) MH370 turned through almost 180° to reverse its course back towards the Malaysian Peninsula and almost immediately climbed to 45,000 feet.

At 01:37 there should have been an automated ACARS transmission. This did not happen and no further ACARS data was received from MH370. Therefore, at some point between 01:07 and 01:37, the ACARS system stopped transmitting. We don’t know if this was because it was deliberately disabled or because it suffered some form of technical problem.

At 02:22 Malaysian Military radar lost contact with MH370 somewhere north of Sumatra over the Malacca Strait. The aircraft was seen to make a turn to the south just before contact was lost.

At 02:25 The SATCOM system on MH370 initiated a handshake with the Inmarsat satellite.

At 08:19 the SATCOM system on MH370 once again initiated a handshake with the Inmarsat satellite.

What can we deduce from all this? First of all, it seems very likely from its last known position and the data later provided by Inmarsat that MH370 continued to fly south after the last radar contact, over the southern Indian Ocean. It also seems very likely that the final Inmarsat handshake initiated by the aircraft at 08:19 was caused by an interruption to the power supply to the SATCOM system, almost certainly due to the aircraft running out of fuel. Soon after 08:19 MH370 must have crashed or attempted to land or ditch in the ocean.

The condition of the recovered flaperon suggests that it became detached from the aircraft in a lowered position. The flaperon is lowered for take-off and landing. This would suggest that MH370 made contact with the ocean while it was configured for landing, i.e. that it was ditched rather than crashed. This would mean that it must have been manually flown at this point – the autopilot cannot be configured for a ditching in the open ocean.

The critical thing we don’t know is why MH370 flew the route it did after the last radio contact at 01:19?

Did a technical fault which had disabled all communication systems cause the crew to turn MH370 back towards Malaysia? This seems unlikely. Although the military radar is not completely reliable in terms of recording altitude, there is absolutely no sign of an emergency descent to below 10,000 feet which we’d expect if the aircraft had suffered a loss of cabin pressure but was still under the control of the pilots. For the hour or so that it was tracked by military radar, MH370 made several controlled turns. These could not happen if, for example, the pilots were quickly incapacitated or killed by toxic fumes from a fire or a loss of cabin pressure. The aircraft passed close to the airport at Penang which has a runway long enough to allow a 777 to land safely, but there was no attempt to contact the airport by, for example, flying low enough that mobile phones could be used (mobile phone signals from ground stations can be received at anything up to 10,000 feet). For all these reasons, the technical fault theory does not seem likely.

I can find no evidence to support the idea that MH370 was accidentally shot down during a military exercise (and its known flight path after last radio contact seems to rule this out anyway) or that it was flown under remote control and against the will of the crew. Without some strong evidence, I’m inclined to rule out both of these theories.

Was MH370 hijacked and either flown by hijackers or by one or both pilots under the control of hijackers? This is not impossible, though it would require a very high degree of technical knowledge on the part of the hijackers (for example, in understanding the significance of the ACARS system). The route taken by the aircraft suggests that, if it was hijacked, the hijackers intended to kill themselves and everyone else on-board (there simply isn’t anywhere a 777 could land in the southern Indian Ocean). This isn’t unknown, but it is very unusual for hijackers who are prepared and willing to die for a cause not to make their intentions, motives and allegiances clear. Captain Shah’s radio calls about maintaining altitude are also odd – were these an attempt to attract attention to the fact that something was wrong on MH370 without alerting someone in the cockpit? This doesn’t seem very likely – like every other airline, Malaysian Airlines have in place discreet procedures to allow pilots to alert ground controllers that a hijacking is taking place without alarming the hijackers. None of these were used on 8th March. It’s not impossible that hijackers stormed the cockpit immediately after the last radio call, killing or incapacitating both pilots and taking control of the aircraft before anyone could raise the alarm, but there is no direct evidence that this is what actually happened.

The fact that MH370 was being flown manually by someone for at least one hour after last radio contact and probably for another seven hours or so effectively rules out a disabling technical fault or a fire or being shot down as the cause of the disappearance. The condition of the recovered flaperon suggests that MH370 was configured for landing when it finally impacted the ocean. Which implies a controlled ditching rather than an aircraft on autopilot with an incapacitated crew which simply ran out of fuel at cruise altitude and descended rapidly. Because of this, it is almost certain that someone was still alive, conscious and flying MH370 at 08:19.

But who? There is strong circumstantial evidence that whoever flew MH370 after 01:19 had good knowledge of aircraft systems and airline and ATC procedures. This includes:

Equipment. The disabling of ACARS and the ATC Transponder suggest detailed knowledge of aircraft systems and communication protocols.

Route. The timing of MH370’s initial turn off course (after handover from Lumpur Radar but before making contact with Ho Chi Minh Control) ensured maximum confusion for the ATC Controllers in both countries and a delay in recognising that the aircraft was off-course. In addition when MH370 crossed the Malaysian Peninsula, it did so very close to the border with Thailand – it actually crossed briefly into Thai airspace more than once. This caused maximum confusion about whose airspace it was actually in, and therefore which regional ATC Control it should be communicating with. Malaysian military radar controllers seemed to assume it was most probably under the control of Thai ATC and Thai radar operators, if they saw MH370 at all, would have assumed it was under the control of Malaysian ATC. After crossing Malaysia, the aircraft flew over the Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Sumatra, a route which avoided civilian ATC radar coverage. It then flew beyond Sumatra before turning to the south, again avoiding ATC radar. All these things imply that the person flying MH370 had good knowledge of regional ATC and military radar systems and procedures.

Ascent to 45,000 feet. If MH370 did climb to 45,000 feet as claimed this is very significant. This is well above the normal operating altitude for a 777 which has a service ceiling of 43,100 feet. At 45,000 feet, if someone in the cockpit was to manually lower cabin pressure, everyone in the aircraft would rapidly become unconscious and would die within around ten to twelve minutes. However, oxygen masks for the pilots are pressurised and anyone using one of these masks would survive. It is possible to imagine a scenario where the person flying MH370 took the aircraft up to 45,000 feet, partly depressurised the cabin and waited behind the reinforced cockpit door until everyone else on the flight was dead before descending back to below 35,000 feet. Once again, this implies good knowledge of aircraft systems.

The only possibilities are that one of the pilots was flying MH370 after 01:19 or that someone else fortuitously entered the cockpit just at the perfect moment when Lumpur Radar had handed over but before Captain Shah was able to make contact with Ho Chi Minh Control and that person or people then took control of the aircraft. That isn’t impossible, but it would require a very large slice of luck for this imagined hijacker(s). Because of this, most knowledgeable commentators have assumed that one of the pilots was flying MH370 after the last radio call. Just as in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance, most of these people still suspect Captain Shah. The two radio calls made by Captain Shah reporting that he was maintaining altitude are certainly odd as was his failure to read back the frequency he had just been given in the last radio call. Was this slip because he had no intention of making contact with Ho Chi Minh Control? It has also been noted that one of the final turns made by MH370 was as it passed south of Penang, Captain Shah’s home island, leading to speculation that he was taking a last look at the island before flying out over the ocean.

It is a terrible thing to accuse anyone of killing 238 innocent people, especially when there is no apparent motive and no known background of fanaticism or mental instability. However, from the evidence currently available, it seems certain that an experienced and knowledgeable person deliberately flew MH370 off its planned route and over the Indian Ocean until it ran out of fuel. In the absence of any solid evidence of hijacking, the pilots are the people on the spot with the knowledge, experience and means to do this. I don’t claim that this is the certain answer to what happened to MH370, but at the moment it does seem most probable that for unknown reasons one of the pilots of MH370 flew it to destruction.

This remains a truly baffling mystery. Even if the main wreckage of MH370 is discovered, we may never know precisely what happened. If it lies in the deep ocean, recovery may be extremely difficult or even impossible. Even if they are recovered, we just don’t know if it will be possible to derive usable data from black boxes which have been in the sea for as long as these have. More than two years on we are no closer to understanding what happened to MH370 than we were in March 2104. If there is a 21st Century mystery to equal the Mary Celeste, it’s the story of the disappearance of MH370.

rwmore

Flight MH370: The Mystery, 2014 by Nigel Cawthorne. This book was published just over two months after the disappearance of MH370 and explains how the aircraft was shot down in error during a secret US/Thai military exercise. Which it wasn’t. Read it if you must, but there are much better books about MH370.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flight-MH370-Mystery-Nigel-Cawthorne/dp/1784181129

“Goodnight Malaysian 370”: The Truth Behind The Loss of Flight 370, 2014, Ewan Wilson and Geoff Taylor. Fairly detailed book published six months after the incident which concludes that Captain Shah deliberately crashed MH370.

http://www.amazon.com/Goodnight-Malaysian-370-Behind-Flight/dp/0473288672

The Vanishing of Flight MH370: The True Story of the Hunt for the Missing Malaysian Plane, 2016 by Richard Quest. Written by a veteran CNN aviation correspondent who met and flew with First Officer Hamid a short time before the disappearance of MH370. Quest concludes that MH370 was lost due to a technical issue, mostly because he can’t imagine why the Captain or First Officer would want to destroy the aircraft. Well written and fairly detailed but perhaps contains more information about Richard Quest and CNN than is ideal in a book about MH370.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Vanishing-Flight-MH370-Malaysian/dp/0425283011

MH370 Official Site. Site set up and maintained by the Malaysian Government to provide information on the continuing search for MH370.

http://www.mh370.gov.my/index.php/en/

What Happened to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370? Website set up to provide information for families on the search for MH370.

http://mh370.bookofresearch.com/index.htm

The search for MH370. Website maintained by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau on the search for MH370

https://www.atsb.gov.au/mh370/

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One thought on “The MH370 Mystery

  1. very well done article, it is a very sad tragedy. i honestly laugh at anyone who suggests the remote control theory. even for scale models built using top of the line parts and details, it takes a while to tune everything to work reliably, or even correctly. not to mention the cost of parts and time to install everything and do it so no one would notice is very high. i would imagine it would take weeks if not months of work to fully R/C a commercial jet, not to mention all the mechanics and inspectors would take notice due to the high level of regulations in place. many aircraft when not powered have very good glide characteristics, especially commercial ones, so a total loss of power doesnt mean crashed plane like most think. also i think that model of plane has a most if not all glass flight deck so in theory a large electrical failure could put any navigation equipment out of commission and pilots can be easily confused when faced with the vast ocean. then throw in running out of fuel would put the aircraft into a glide and ditch at sea, if the plane sank quick we wouldnt ever find evidence, or least not much. a lot of people state the service ceiling as 43k, when in reality most aircraft can travel well above the service ceiling, the service ceiling it what is safe for applications. much like hose ratings, working pressure vs burst pressure. im convinced it was a chain of failures that lead to this, one piece of advice i was given was that most conspiracies work from event to plan, and seam to fit. but if you work from plan to event most theories fall apart. anyway great website, look forward to more articles.

    Like

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