Unraveling The Mystery of MH370
One of the biggest mysteries in recent history occurred on March 8, 2014. Flight MH370 was set to start a standard flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, as 227 passengers boarded the Boeing 777 expecting a routine flight on one of the largest and safest commercial planes in the world.
However, MH370 became infamous as the plane that disappeared and is still yet to be found. While there are many theories about what caused the plane to deviate from it’s course - pilot suicide, hijacking, malfunction - the cause of the plane’s disappearance will likely never be certain.
In a time where more than 100,000 planes take off daily and billions of dollars in resources are dedicated to safe air travel, how is it that a massive plane with hundreds of passengers simply goes missing?
The disappearance of Flight MH370 brings into question the safety of our air travel as well as the effectiveness of the air traffic control and plane monitoring systems on which we rely so heavily.
The flight took off as scheduled at 12:42 AM and ascended to its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.
After 26 minutes, the plane left the Malaysian coastline and traveled towards Vietnam, exchanging normal correspondence with the Vietnamese air traffic control at 1:19 AM.
Two minutes later, the plane’s transponder was shut off.
Air traffic control relies heavily on what is called a secondary radar, a signal that contains detailed information of the plane via the transponder.
After the transponder was turned off, Vietnamese air traffic control no longer had any means of tracking the flight. The plane was still being tracked by its primary radar, a much less accurate system that relies on pings off the moving plane and shows only a blurry picture of the plane’s location.
The Malaysian military tracked MH 370 via primary radar for 52 minutes, which depicted the plane drastically veering in a southwesterly direction.
Most importantly, the plane was equipped with ACARS, a system that relays information about the aircraft’s systems to the ground.
Sometime between 1:07 AM and 1:37 AM, ACARS was disabled within the plane and information stopped being transmitted.
However, the satellite used for ACARS, known as the Satellite Data Unit (SDU), lies outside of the plane and cannot be disabled, so it continued to ping off of passing satellites, commonly known as “handshakes” for 7 hours, up until 8:11 AM.
These handshakes were crucial in establishing an idea of where the plane was going and how long it was in the air before crashing.
Another vital piece of data the SDU provides comes from Burst Timing Offset (BTO), Burst Frequency Offset (BFO), and Doppler shifts.
Together, these three data points measure the velocity and direction of the plane with respect to an Inmarsat satellite in geostationary orbit.
Extensive studies on the BFO and BTO indicated that between 8:00 and 9:00 AM, which would have been when the plane likely would have run out of fuel, the plane abruptly descended.
This descent was over 5 times faster than a normal descent, and with respect to gravity and its previous velocity, the plane was essentially in a free fall into the ocean.
This could not have been a controlled attempt at a landing, but rather a fuel-starved plane that dove at speeds exceeding 15,000 feet a minute, likely shedding parts on its way to a shattering impact with the ocean.
These values showed a strong likelihood that the plane was somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean at the time of its crash.
This is supported by the debris that has washed up on the western coast of Africa in the years following the crash, as 20 pieces of the plane that have “almost certainly” belonged to MH370 have been found.
A drift study of the objects has supported that these pieces originated from MH370, and also estimated the location of the crash to be in the middle of the Indian Ocean, slightly closer to the west coast of Australia.
It is important to note that the main satellite that was tracking MH370 via handshakes with the ACARS system was an Inmarsat satellite built in 1996, which was outside of its predicted lifespan and known for being unstable.
While it is still extremely relevant and informational to the search for MH370, its data may not be completely accurate, leading to an extensive possible crash site and further speculation about its validity.
The likelihood of finding the plane now is extraordinarily low.
After it became clear the plane was in the Indian Ocean, roughly 1,500 miles west of the city of Perth, a search zone of 230,000 square miles was outlined.
An already huge area to search with ocean depths topping 25,000 feet, the area is known for having extremely inhospitable conditions.
Unfortunately, investigators were mislead at first and the initial searches took place in the South China Sea, between Malaysia and Vietnam.
Because it took several weeks for searches to begin in the right area, the chances of finding the plane decreased exponentially. While conspiracies still run rampant, it is most likely that MH370 lies at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
As time passes and recovering a functional set of recordings from MH370 becomes less and less likely, we are left with fact-based speculation with respect to the cause of the flight’s disappearance.
While there cannot be a certainty, the majority of the facts point to MH370’s fatal end to be from pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
There is no type of electronic failure or system malfunction that could have accounted for the loss of communication with all systems in the plane.
Additionally, the unusual flight path consisting of twists and turns to its eventual south westerly course could not have been from auto-pilot, but rather manual flying.
During the time where the plane must have been flying from manual controls, several distress alerts were sent to the cockpit via air traffic control that went unanswered.
Engineers and aviation experts concluded that during the manual southwesterly turn, the plane quickly rose to 40,000 feet, depressurizing the cabin and swiftly killing everyone in the plane.
The cockpit would be the only safe space in the plane, as it was equipped with several oxygen tanks linked to hours’ worth of supply.
The door to the cockpit is electronically bolted with cameras and crew members outside it, making it impossible for a hijacker to have entered without signs of distress from the plane’s systems as well as the cockpit.
There are no indications from what is known of the co-pilot’s life that would lead him to be a suspect. He was an optimistic 27 year old who had plans of getting married soon.
Flight MH370 was his last flight as a pilot in training, as he had far less experience in the air than Captain Zaharie.
Meanwhile Zaharie was going through personal troubles, as his wife had recently moved out and close friends of his consistently described him as a sad and lonely man. He had been actively engaging with other women on the internet but his interest was not reciprocated.
Additionally, a flight simulator found in the basement of his home showed a recent flight path almost identical to that of MH370’s, ending with fuel exhaustion in the middle of the Indian Ocean. While nothing can be known for certain, the most likely reason for MH370’s infamous end is from pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
Written by Shaw Rhinelander
Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Jeremy Knopp, Gihyen Eom, Bryan Xiao,Thomas Braun, Juan Agudelo, Jack Argiro, Michael Ding, Pranshu Gupta, Calvin Ma & Zachary Ostrow