The Curious Mystery of MH370
On the quiet moonlit night of March 8, 2014, Kuala Lumpur International Airport was busy with flights all over the world. No one had expected that what was about to happen later that night would amount to a tremendous loss for many families. Malaysia Airline’sBoeing 777-200ER was ready for takeoff.
Once off the ground, the plane turned towards Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet at 1:01 a.m. Fariq Hamid, the 27-year old first officer, was flying the airplane. This was the last training flight for him; he would soon be fully certified.
His trainer was the pilot in command, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. He had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator in his house and flew it frequently, often posting to online forums about his hobby. In the cockpit, Fariq would have been deferential to him, but Zaharie was not known for being overbearing.
On that plane, there were 10 flight attendants and 227 passengers, including 5 children. Most of the passengers were Chinese, and the 10 flight attendants were Malaysian. Nineteen minutes after taking off, Captain Zaharie radioed that they had leveled off at 35,000 feet—a superfluous report in radar-surveilled airspace.
The norm is to report leaving an altitude, not arriving at one. At that moment, Officer Fariq was flying the airplane and Captain Zaharie handled the radios. At 1:08 the flight crossed the Malaysian coastline and set out across the South China Sea in the direction of Vietnam. Zaharie, again, reported the plane’s level at 35,000 feet.
Eleven minutes later, as the airplane closed in on a waypoint near the start of the Vietnamese air-traffic jurisdiction, the controller at Kuala Lumpur Center radioed, “Malaysian three-seven-zero, contact Ho Chi Minh one-two-zero-decimal-nine. Good night.” Zaharie answered, “Good night. Malaysian three-seven-zero.”
He did not read back the frequency as he should have, but otherwise the transmission sounded normal. These were the last words the world heard from MH370. The pilots never checked in with Ho Chi Minh or answered any of the subsequent attempts to raise them.
Understanding how radar works is key to understanding this event. Primary radar relies on simple, raw pings off objects in the sky. Air-traffic-control systems use what is known as secondary radar, which depends on a transponder signal that is transmitted by each airplane.
The advantages of this secondary radar compared with primary radar is that it contains more information, including the airplane's identity and altitude for insurance. Five seconds after MH370 crossed into Vietnamese airspace, the symbol representing its transponder dropped from the screens of Malaysian air traffic control, and 37 seconds later the entire airplane disappeared from secondary radar.
The controller in Kuala Lumpur was dealing with traffic elsewhere on his screen and simply did not notice. When he finally did, he assumed that the airplane was in the hands of Ho Chi Minh, somewhere beyond his range.
In fact, after it disappeared from the air traffic controllers’ radar screens, it was still tracked on military radar as it deviated westwards from its planned flight path and crossed the Mala Peninsula until it left the range of the military radar at 2:22 while over the Andaman Sea, 200 nautical miles northwest of the island of Penang in northwestern Malaysia.
The Vietnamese controllers, meanwhile, saw MH370 cross into their airspace and then disappear from radar. They apparently misunderstood a formal agreement by which Ho Chi Minh was supposed to inform Kuala Lumpur immediately if an airplane that had been handed off was more than five minutes late checking-in. Instead, they repeatedly tried to contact the aircraft with no success. By the time they picked up the phone to inform Kuala Lumpur, 18 minutes had passed since MH370’s disappearance from their radar screens.
What ensued was an exercise in confusion and incompetence. Kuala Lumpur’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre should have been notified within an hour of the disappearance, but they still had not been by 2:30 a.m. Four more hours elapsed before an emergency response finally began, at 6:32 a.m.
At that moment, the airplane should have been landing in Beijing. At first, the search center was in the South China Sea, between Malaysia and Vietnam, with 34 ships and 28 aircrafts from seven different countries working together in this international rescue team. MH370 was nowhere to be found.
Within a matter of days, primary radar records salvaged from air-traffic-control computers, and partial corroboration from the secret Malaysian air-force data, revealed that as soon as MH370 disappeared from secondary radar, it turned sharply to the southwest. It flew back across the Malay Peninsula and banked around the island of Penang.
Then, it flew northwest up the Strait of Malacca and out across the Andaman Sea, where it faded beyond radar range into obscurity. It took more than an hour to accomplish this, suggesting that this was not a standard case of a hijacking. It was like no other accident or pilot-suicide scenario.
The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. Less than a week after the disappearance, The Wall Street Journal published the first report about the satellite transmissions, indicating that the airplane had most likely stayed aloft for hours after going silent.
Malaysian officials eventually admitted that the account was true. Accident investigators dispatched from Europe, Australia, and the United States were shocked by the disarray they encountered. The confusion was even more shocking than the accident itself because Malaysian officials withheld what they knew. The initial sea searches were concentrated in the wrong place—the South China Sea—and found no floating debris.
Had the officials told the truth right away, such debris might have been found and used to identify the airplane’s approximate location. The Malaysian regime was proving itself to be furtive, fearful, and unreliable in this investigation.
Despite reflexive denials by Malaysian officials, and outright obfuscation by the Malaysian air force, the truth about the airplane’s strange flight path quickly began to emerge. After it disappeared from the primary and secondary radar, it had continued to link up intermittently with a geostationary Indian Ocean satellite for six hours, operated by a commercial vendor in London, Inmarsat. It appeared that the airplane remained cruising at high-speed and high-altitude.
The Inmarsat linkups were electronic blips routine connections that amounted to the merest whisper of communication, because the intended contents of the system—passenger entertainment, cockpit texts, automated maintenance reports—had been isolated or switched off. There were seven linkups: two initiated automatically by the airplane, and five others initiated automatically by the Inmarsat ground station.
The data log gives the distance of the airplane to the radar, which is not a single location but rather all equidistant locations, a roughly circular set of possibilities. Calculations of likely flight paths place the airplane’s intersection with the seventh possible range—and its end point—in Kazakhstan if the airplane turned north, or in the southern Indian Ocean if it turned south.
The six-hour Doppler value (a measure of the radio-frequency Doppler shifts associated with high-speed movement relative to the satellite’s position estimating the horizontal and vertical velocity) demonstrated a steep descent, as much as five-times greater than a normal descent rate according to the log date.
Within a minute or two of crossing the seventh range, the plane dived into the ocean, possibly shedding components before impact. Judging from the electronic evidence, this was not a controlled attempt at a water landing.
The airplane must have fractured instantly into a million pieces, but no one knew where or why the impact had occurred.
There was also no physical evidence to confirm that the satellite interpretations were correct. It took two years to find the debris from Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic in 2009 when the searchers knew exactly where to look.
MH370’s event is unlikely to be a hijacking. If it is a hijacking, what would be the purpose? The intricate seven-hour profile of MH370’s deviation into oblivion fits none of these scenarios.
This brings us into a different explanation of this event, a hijacking from the inside. It is irrational for a pilot to murder hundreds of innocent passengers in exchange for his own life, although this has happened before. In the case of MH370, it is difficult to see the co-pilot Hamid as the perpetrator: he was young and optimistic, and reportedly planning to get married. He had no history of any sort of trouble, dissent, or doubts.
The captain Zaharie, however, raises concerns. The first warning is his portrayal in the official reports as someone beyond reproach—a good pilot and placid family man who liked to play with a flight simulator. This is the image promoted by Zaharie’s family, but it is contradicted by multiple indications of trouble that have been brushed over.
One of captain Zaharie’s lifelong friends, a fellow 777 captain, states that he could not think of the motive, but Zaharie had a bad marriage. His emotional state might have been a factor. It is easy for Zaharie to get rid of his cockpit companion since he was an examiner on board. “All he had to say was ‘Go check something in the cabin,’ and the guy would have been gone,” his friend said. Do the absences of Zaharie’s travails, the peculiar nature of the flight profile on the simulator, and technical inadequacies of the report constitute a coverup?
While there is not enough information at this time, we know some of what the investigators knew, but chose not to reveal. There is likely more that they discovered and that we do not yet know.
The loss devastated families on four continents, but the official investigations have sadly petered out.
Written by Zhehao Zhang
Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Corina Perez-Cobb, Antonella Dec-Prat, Pranshu Gupta, Gihyen Eom, Jack Argiro