Call of the Void: Seven years on, what do we know about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370?
“Good night, Malaysian three seven zero.”
Seven years have now gone since this last fateful transmission, so laden with the dark shadow of premonition, that marked the passing of MH370 into the realm of legend. Exactly one minute and forty-three seconds later, a dramatic and mysterious sequence of events would begin to unfold, the opening chapter in a story that transfixed the world.
At 1:20 a.m. on the 8th of March 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared from radar over the South China Sea and embarked on an enigmatic journey to the most remote corner of the Indian Ocean. Confused authorities scrambled to find the crash site, unaware that the plane was still in the air, heading deeper into uncharted seas at the margin of the world. Even after its true path was traced, answers proved elusive. How was it possible for something as big as a Boeing 777 to simply vanish without a trace? And the million-dollar question: why? To this day, we still don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. But over the years, enough evidence has trickled in to paint a disturbing picture of a flight that could only be considered a masterwork of airmanship directed toward nefarious ends. Indeed, the fate of the 777 is not as much of a mystery as the public discourse makes it seem — on the contrary, when all the evidence is considered, only one theory makes sense. This is the story of what really happened to MH370.
By the 8th of March 2014, First Officer Fariq Hamid was on his way to stardom. The 27-year-old had recently been promoted to first officer on the Boeing 777 for Malaysia Airlines, and was almost done with his line training. He was engaged to marry a fellow pilot whom he had met at flight school. Pictures posted to social media showed him posing in the cockpit with the flight attendants, a bright smile plastered on his face. Just one more trip — Malaysia Airlines flight 370 to Beijing — and he would be fully qualified to fly the massive wide body jet, a great honor in a country where the flag carrier had not yet lost its association with national pride.
His line instructor for the red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China would be 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmed Shah. Married with two adult children, he had already been living Fariq’s dream for years. He had more than 18,000 hours of flying experience, of which over 8,600 were on the Boeing 777, making him one of the most experienced triple seven pilots at Malaysia Airlines. Fariq, with just 39 hours on type, would have been among the least.
At the gate in Kuala Lumpur, as Zaharie oversaw the refueling of the plane, 227 passengers filed on board and took their seats. They hailed from 14 different countries, but the majority — 153 of them — were from China, and more than half of the rest were Malaysians. Twelve Malaysian crewmembers, including ten flight attendants and the two pilots, brought the total number of people on board to 239.
All appeared normal as Malaysia Airlines flight 370 taxied to the runway and took off at 00:42 local time. The flight climbed without incident to its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, making all the routine radio calls, plus a couple extra, as Captain Zaharie twice reported that they were level at 35,000 when there was no need to do so. But this was in no way cause for alarm.
At 1:19 a.m., with the flight approaching the edge of Malaysian airspace, the area control center in Kuala Lumpur initiated a control handoff to their counterparts in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “Malaysian three seven zero, contact Ho Chi Minh one two zero decimal nine. Good night,” the controller said.
“Good night, Malaysian three seven zero,” Captain Zaharie replied.
But MH370 never contacted Ho Chi Minh on 120.9. At 01:20, one minute and 43 seconds after the last radio call, as the plane passed over the IGARI waypoint in the South China Sea, someone or something turned off its transponder. On controllers’ radar screens, MH370’s target disappeared into the darkness, snuffed out like a candle in the wind.
Initially, no one noticed the sudden disappearance of the airplane. After handing the flight over to Ho Chi Minh control, the Malaysian controller looked away from his screen, and when he looked back, the plane was gone. He assumed that it had flown out of radar range and returned to his duties without a second thought.
In Vietnam, controllers expected the plane to contact them, but it did not, and they couldn’t find it on radar either. Controllers in Ho Chi Minh City began trying to raise the plane on radio without success. For 18 minutes, they sent out a series of increasingly desperate calls: would MH370 please respond? Could any planes in the area contact MH370? The only answer was silence.
According to their mutually agreed rules, the Vietnamese controllers should have called Kuala Lumpur within five minutes after failing to establish contact with the plane. In the event, 19 minutes passed before this call was made. A controller in Kuala Lumpur asked, “Malaysian three seven zero, do you read?” No answer.
As both control centers continued trying to raise the plane, the Kuala Lumpur controllers contacted Malaysia Airlines’ operations center, who inexplicably told them that the plane was on course and over Cambodia — despite the fact that its flight plan didn’t call for it to pass through Cambodian airspace, and controllers in Phnom Penh had already reported that they saw no sign of the plane.
Although Malaysia Airlines operations were mistaken in putting the plane in Cambodian airspace, they genuinely did believe that it was still in the air, proceeding normally to its destination. They were tracking the plane on the Flight Explorer website, which, as they would only realize hours later, simply continued to display an aircraft’s projected path if its transponder stopped broadcasting position information. But this incorrect assumption was reinforced at 02:39, when Malaysia Airlines attempted to place a satellite phone call to the plane, and the airplane’s satellite data unit acknowledged the transmission. Although nobody picked up and no data was transferred, this showed that the plane was indeed still in the air. Perhaps they had simply had some kind of communications failure?
Around this time, the problem began to escalate up the Malaysia Airlines chain of command. At 03:00, having checked the company’s internal tracking system and found no sign of MH370, Malaysia Airlines’ crisis director declared a code red emergency. It wasn’t until 30 minutes after that when someone finally told the operations department that Flight Explorer was not showing the real position of the plane, only a projected position. But despite mounting evidence that MH370 really was missing, both control centers and Malaysia Airlines spent a further two hours fruitlessly trying to contact the plane, before finally informing emergency services of the situation at 05:30. At 06:30, when the flight failed to land in Beijing at the scheduled time, Malaysia finally launched a full-scale search and rescue operation, beginning near the plane’s last recorded position in the South China Sea.
Despite a growing realization that the airplane had probably crashed, at 07:14 Malaysia Airlines tried one last time to place a satellite telephone call to MH370. Perplexingly, the call once again connected successfully, but nobody answered. As the search in the South China Sea kicked into gear, it was not clear that the significance of this fact was properly appreciated.
At 07:24, Malaysian authorities announced to the world that MH370 was missing, last seen on radar crossing IGARI. There had been no distress call. At first, this was assumed to be a normal plane crash. Floating debris would be found within hours or days, and the main body of wreckage sometime later. Neighboring countries, as well as China and the United States, sent an ever-growing contingent of ships and airplanes to scour the area around IGARI, but as the hours ticked by, not one of them could find any sign of the plane.
It was only on the evening of March 8th that Malaysia Airlines’ engineering department, which monitors satellite communications, provided the CEO with an astonishing update. Although the plane stopped sending data at 01:21, it continued to acknowledge transmissions from the satellite for a further seven hours. This suggested an unprecedented possibility: that the plane didn’t crash into the South China Sea; rather, it continued flying throughout the night and into the morning. At the time that the wreckage search began, the plane may well have still been in the air!
Unsure how to interpret this information, Malaysia Airlines decided to wait until some kind of corroborating evidence could be found. It wouldn’t be long before they got just what they were looking for.
On March 9th, the Malaysian military made a surprising announcement: after the plane disappeared from civilian radar, it had continued to track the flight on primary radar for another two hours. Unlike the “secondary radar” used by air traffic controllers, military radar stations use “primary radar,” which detects aircraft by bouncing radio signals off of them instead of communicating via the airplane’s transponder. After MH370’s transponder went dark, Malaysian military radar tracked an object originating from MH370’s last known position. The object initiated a hard left turn just past IGARI, rolling out on a southwesterly heading that took it back across the Malay peninsula. It skirted the border between Malaysia and Thailand, crossed into Malaysian airspace, then made a wide right turn around the island of Penang before taking up the published Airway Route N571 up the Strait of Malacca, dutifully passing over all the expected waypoints until it passed out of range. The flight path was so bizarre that no one was quite sure what to make of it.
Malaysian authorities were initially not 100% sure that the object was in fact MH370, but the chances were high enough that a second search was ordered in the Strait of Malacca in addition to the ongoing search in the South China Sea. On March 12th, this search was expanded into the Andaman Sea to the northwest, but despite a massive international armada of military and civilian vessels scouring the sea from sunrise to sunset, their enormous effort turned up no sign of the plane.
Meanwhile, Malaysian officials had decided to try to extract more information from the satellite data that had suggested the plane kept flying for seven hours. Routine automatic satellite communications were made approximately every hour, except for the initial period of the flight between 01:21 and 02:25, when some kind of power interruption to the airplane’s satellite data unit had prevented the satellite from making contact. After that, every hour or so a ground station in Perth sent a query (or “handshake”) to the plane via a geostationary satellite located over the Indian Ocean. The purpose was not to transmit information but simply to verify that the plane was still there. All of these “handshakes” were acknowledged by the plane up until the last one at 08:19.
The satellite in question was operated by a British company called Inmarsat. In the days immediately following the crash, engineers at Inmarsat came up with an ingenious way to extract some information about the plane’s position from these routine handshakes. The basic premise was that by measuring the time it took for the signal to travel from the satellite to the plane and back again, it would be possible to derive the distance between the plane and the satellite at that particular moment. Each of the seven handshakes therefore revealed not the exact position of the plane, but a ring of possible locations, all equidistant from the satellite. The data showed that during the first couple of handshakes, the plane was moving closer to the satellite, then began moving farther away. Taking into account the plane’s fuel load, experts were able to rule out all points on the rings west of about 70 degrees east, because they were out of range. This left two wide corridors where MH370 could have traveled while maintaining the time-distance correlation derived from the satellite data: one bending to the northwest, crossing over India and into Central Asia; and another that curved south, deep into the Southern Indian Ocean.
On each of these possible corridors, the plane passed through all seven “arcs,” the segments of the original rings that were within the plane’s range. MH370 reached the seventh arc at 08:19, but 15 minutes later it failed to acknowledge a satellite handshake, indicating that it had either lost power or crashed sometime between 08:19 and 08:34. This meant that the final resting place of the plane was probably relatively close to the seventh arc. Malaysian authorities announced the revelation of the satellite data on March 15th, at which time the still-ongoing surface searches in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca were called off.
Over the following week, the northern corridor was ruled out, as none of the countries along this corridor had detected any unidentified planes crossing their airspace. Nor had anyone seen the plane crashing or landing in Central Asia. That meant that MH370 must have turned south, into the Indian Ocean. On March 24th, the CEO of Malaysia Airlines told the world that the plane had surely flown along the southern corridor, and that this area of the ocean was “a remote location far from any possible landing site.” He then added, “We have to assume beyond all reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and none of those on board survived.” For the families of the passengers and crew, his words fell like a hammer blow. Their loved ones had been written off as dead.
The news that the plane had turned south and flown into the Southern Indian Ocean for five hours after leaving radar range stunned the world. What on earth was going on aboard MH370? Why would anyone fly such a flight path? But to find the answer, investigators would first need to find the plane.
On March 24th, Malaysia, China, and Australia agreed to begin a surface search in a vast area of the Indian Ocean near the seventh arc, where the plane was thought to have crashed. But by this time two weeks had passed since the accident, and based on the experience of previous sea searches, it was unlikely that they would be able to find any floating debris — ocean currents would have dispersed it too widely to track down. Although some satellite images showed possible objects drifting away from the seventh arc, a massive aerial and surface search covering over a million square kilometers failed to turn up any sign of the plane.
Meanwhile, the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB), in cooperation with authorities in Malaysia and China, organized a mission to find the signals from the plane’s black boxes. The 777’s two flight recorders each have a battery-powered emergency locator beacon that begins transmitting (or “pinging”) when immersed in water. By towing specialized detectors behind a ship, it is possible to pick up these signals and find the plane. After an analysis of the most likely flight paths, the ATSB chose a sector of the seventh arc where it believed the plane most likely came down, and began searching for the signals in this area. They wouldn’t have much time: the pingers were only guaranteed to last 30 days before running out of battery power, and would certainly not last more than 40.
Within a few days, an Australian ship searching for the signal got four separate hits on almost the right frequency very close to each other. Sure that they were on the right track, the ATSB announced an underwater search in the area where the pingers were heard. An automated submersible equipped with side-scan sonar was deployed to scour the seabed. Optimism seemed to be mounting; surely the plane would soon be found.
However, over the course of several weeks, the submersible traversed the entire search area without finding the wreckage. It was a massive disappointment: the supposed signals from the black boxes must have been false. Only much later was it discovered that the signals had probably come from the scanning equipment pinging itself.
By this point the batteries in the flight recorders had long since run out. The only solution now was to begin methodically scanning a vast area of the seabed along the seventh arc. But before defining a search area, the ATSB had to answer two questions: how far along the length of the seventh arc should they search, and how far away from it in both directions?
Neither of these questions had easy solutions. It was possible to narrow down the east-west range along the arc by making some assumptions about the likely speed and altitude of the aircraft, which made use of a parameter of the satellite data called “burst frequency offset.” Due to the doppler effect, the frequency of an emission will appear lower if the source is moving away from the receiver, and higher if the source is moving toward the receiver. The difference between the nominal frequency and the actual frequency is called the burst frequency offset. Inmarsat engineers were able to use the burst frequency offset to determine the degree to which the plane was moving toward or away from the satellite at each handshake. This analysis resulted in a Gaussian distribution of possible flight paths consistent with this data and terminating at the seventh arc. Overall, the results suggested that the plane was on autopilot and cruising without any major heading changes for the final five hours of the flight. But while this data was helpful, it was fundamentally limited by a lack of knowledge of where in the Andaman Sea MH370 initially turned south, as this turn occurred after the plane had left both Malaysian and Indonesian radar range.
As for how far from the arc to search, the question hinged on how far the plane could have flown after the last handshake. Here, some more highly technical analysis of the transmissions had to be performed.
The seventh arc was actually established not by one handshake, but by two handshakes spaced eight seconds apart. The first of these handshakes originated from the plane, not the satellite, which could only mean that there had been a temporary interruption to the power supply to the 777’s satellite data unit, causing it to try to re-establish contact with the satellite. This same phenomenon had also been observed at the first handshake, at 02:25, after another apparent power interruption. While the origin of the earlier power interruption wasn’t clear, there was an obvious reason for the later one: the plane had almost certainly run out of fuel. This would have resulted in a loss of electrical power as the engines stopped turning. Power could then have been briefly restored to the communications equipment if there was enough residual fuel to start the auxiliary power unit, the backup generator in the tail. The APU could be started manually, but would also start automatically after one minute without electrical power if a pilot did not intervene.
The seventh arc could therefore be established as the likely point of fuel exhaustion, inherently limiting the distance the plane could have traveled beyond that. The other part of the question was how quickly the plane crashed after running out of fuel. The answer depended on whether or not someone was flying the plane. If not, calculations by Boeing showed that the 777 would most likely enter a spiral dive, descending at a fairly high rate of speed and impacting the water within 20 nautical miles of the point of fuel exhaustion. On the other hand, if a pilot optimized the glide, they could potentially have flown as far as 100 nautical miles. In the absence of any evidence for either scenario, the ATSB chose to assume that the plane spiraled in close to the seventh arc because it had not received enough funding to extend the width of the search area to 100 nautical miles.
The underwater search along the seventh arc began on October 6th, 2014 and continued well into the following year. In April 2015, with 60% of the search area having been covered, Australia, Malaysia, and China agreed to double the search area from 60,000 to 120,000 square kilometers. The massive search operation did turn up some interesting objects, including some nineteenth century shipwrecks (one can only imagine the terror that befell their crews, lost at sea in the farthest reaches of the Indian Ocean, knowing that they would never be found). But it found no sign of MH370.
In January 2017, having searched the entire 120,000 square kilometers without finding the plane, the three countries agreed to suspend the search. Malaysia announced that it would only restart the search if “credible new evidence” of MH370’s location could be provided. MH370 aficionados were disappointed; relatives of the victims were devastated. Many relatives gathered to protest the decision, exhorting Malaysia to “search on.”
Although the search had been suspended, the investigation continued. In addition to government investigators, a large amount of valuable research was also done by the Independent Group, a collection of aviation experts and scientists who had dedicated countless man-hours to investigating MH370. They would be the source of much of what has been revealed since the end of the search.
One independent MH370 aficionado was Blaine Gibson, an American man living a nomad lifestyle who took an interest in the unexplained. He was among the first to champion the idea that debris from MH370 would eventually wash up somewhere, and that it could be examined for clues.
It soon turned out that he was right. In 2015, while the search was still ongoing, local beach cleaners discovered a piece of an airplane on the French island of Reunion, east of Madagascar. French authorities identified the item as a Boeing 777 flaperon — a panel which acts as both a flap and an aileron — and conclusively determined that it came from MH370, based on serial numbers printed into the metal. The trailing edge of the flaperon had been torn away and it was covered in barnacles, but it was otherwise remarkably intact. The true significance of the discovery could not be overstated: at last, there was physical evidence that MH370 did indeed crash somewhere in the Indian Ocean. For the victims’ families, it was like learning they had died all over again.
After the discovery of the flaperon, Blaine Gibson began scouring the coasts of several countries in southeast Africa in search of more debris. It turned out that finding it was surprisingly easy: over the following months, he found pieces of airplane wreckage in Madagascar and Mozambique on a regular basis. As of January of 2021, some 33 pieces of wreckage found on beaches have with varying degrees of certainty been tied to MH370. Of these, more than one third were found by Blaine Gibson.
The discovery of wreckage opened up two new avenues of inquiry: structural analysis, to try to determine how the plane hit the water; and reverse drift analysis — a method used to determine, based on ocean currents, where the debris originated from given where it ended up. Both of these areas would produce a treasure trove of sometimes conflicting information.
Meanwhile, momentum for a new search had begun to build in the year following the suspension of the original search in January 2017. Armed with new reverse drift models, the private search and salvage company Ocean Infinity proposed a deal to the Malaysian government: it would search an area immediately to the north of the ATSB search area, and if it failed to find the plane, Malaysia would not pay a penny. In January 2018, Malaysia accepted the “no find, no fee” offer, and within days Ocean Infinity’s flagship Seabed Constructor was on its way to the Southern Indian Ocean.
Seabed Constructor had an ace up its sleeve that the ATSB lacked: a fleet of eight autonomous submarine vehicles equipped with state-of-the-art sonar scanners would operate simultaneously, covering ground an order of magnitude faster than ever before. Ocean Infinity executives expressed great confidence that they would find the plane, despite the difficult undersea terrain.
For more than five months, Seabed Constructor and its fleet of autonomous submarines scoured the canyons and mountains that lined the ocean floor, moving northward along the seventh arc. Once again, they found a number of interesting items, but none of them were from MH370. In June 2018, having covered the entire proposed search area without finding the plane, Ocean Infinity was forced to pull out. The company had spent millions in capital on the search, but got nothing in return.
Since the Ocean Infinity search ended, no new searches have been launched, and MH370’s final resting place remains unknown to this day. But despite the failure to find the plane, more is known about what happened to MH370 than the general public tends to believe.
From the very beginning, there were only a few possible explanations for why the plane flew its bizarre flight path into the Southern Indian Ocean. One was that a fire somehow knocked out communication and navigation systems but left the pilots with some degree of control. Another was that there was some kind of decompression, and — suffering from hypoxia — the crew began acting irrationally until they eventually fell unconscious or died. A third theory held that hijackers had taken over the plane, intending to fly it somewhere, but something went wrong that killed the pilots and/or the passengers. And finally, there was the most popular theory of them all: that one of the pilots took control of the plane and deliberately flew it to the Southern Indian Ocean in an appalling act of mass murder-suicide.
The problem with making any of these theories work was the sheer number of independent events that they needed to explain. All of the following information had to be accounted for.
First, the theory would need to explain how all of the automated communications and broadcasting equipment, such as the transponder, ACARS, and ADS-B, all switched off within a very short period, but did not do so completely simultaneously. It would also need to explain why the pilots did not make any kind of distress call.
Second, any explanation would need to account for the fact that the turn back to the left toward the Malay peninsula could only have been flown manually by a pilot. Malaysian investigators tried to recreate the turn in a simulator and found that to complete it in 130 seconds, as MH370 did, the autopilot had to be switched off. Even using its tightest allowable bank angle, the autopilot could only complete the turn in 180 seconds or more. While flying manually, investigators managed to make the turn in as little as 148 seconds, though none were able to do it quite as quickly as MH370. Even while making the turn in 148 seconds, the plane was being pushed near its limit: bank angles of up to 35 degrees had to be used, which in the thin air at 35,000 feet is incredibly dangerous. In the simulator, the maneuver set off bank angle warnings and the stick shaker stall warning as the plane threatened to lose lift and fall from the sky. Thus, only a skilled pilot could have accomplished the initial turn.
Third, it was found that the first officer’s cell phone was in range of a cell tower as the plane passed near Penang, yet no one on board attempted to place a call. More generally, there was no evidence that anyone on board made any attempt to contact anyone outside the plane or otherwise interfere with its flight path as it tracked farther and farther from its proper course.
Fourth, an explanation would be needed for why there was a power interruption to the satellite communication unit, only for it to come back online at 02:25.
And fifth, any theory would need to explain why the plane seemingly took up a published airway after passing Penang, then followed it until it was out of radar range before turning south into the Indian Ocean, heading toward an area without any landing sites. It would also need to explain why the flight path remained almost perfectly straight from this point onward.
It is technically possible, although rather difficult, to explain all of this with some kind of accidental scenario. In his book The Hunt for MH370, Ean Higgins provides a theoretically possible sequence of events originating with a fire in a window heater in the cockpit, which rapidly takes out all the communications equipment. Following the explosion, the pilots put on their oxygen masks to protect themselves from smoke. First Officer Fariq initiates a rapid turn back toward land for an emergency landing, while Zaharie powers off the left AC bus to cut power from the window heater (which also powers off the SATCOM equipment). Shortly afterward, Zaharie accidentally pulls his oxygen mask tube out of the oxygen bottle while reaching for the fire extinguisher, causing a sudden release of oxygen that rapidly accelerates the fire until it consumes the cockpit, killing First Officer Fariq. The heat of the fire cracks the windscreen, which finally breaks, causing a rapid decompression that in turn puts out the fire. Captain Zaharie, carrying a supplemental oxygen bottle from the galley, returns to the cockpit to find that most of the controls have been destroyed, including the manual flight controls, the autothrottle, and all the comms. With Zaharie unable to make the plane descend, the passengers soon run out of oxygen and die before reaching Penang; meanwhile, Zaharie finds all he can do is use the autopilot to change heading. He turns the left AC bus back on to try to restore power to the communications equipment, but it doesn’t work. Without any way to land the plane or call for help, and with everyone else on board dead, he decides to send the plane into the Indian Ocean so it won’t hit anyone on the ground when it runs out of fuel and crashes. Zaharie soon runs out of oxygen and dies on the flight deck.
In the same book, Higgins also outlines a scenario involving an explosive decompression. Shortly after passing IGARI, a hole breaks open in the fuselage and all the air rushes out. Captain Zaharie is in the toilet at the time and is unable to reach an oxygen mask, causing him to die of hypoxia. Fariq’s oxygen mask also isn’t working properly — it delivers just enough oxygen to keep him alive, but not enough to keep his brain functioning at an appropriate level. Although he turns back toward Malaysia for an emergency landing, he makes a number of hypoxia-fueled irrational decisions, such as not descending or making a distress call. While trying to use the transponder to squawk a distress code, he accidentally turns it off, along with all the other communications equipment. Because Fariq didn’t descend, the passengers run out of oxygen and die before reaching Penang. Fariq initially heads for Penang, then turns north, trying to head for Langkawi, where he performed pilot training. After reaching the Andaman Sea, he attempts to turn around, but runs out of oxygen and dies, leaving the plane to continue on autopilot into the Southern Indian Ocean until it runs out of fuel.
The problem with both of these theories is that they rely on a long series of independently improbable events all coinciding. For example, in the fire scenario, not only must the left window heater explode (something which has never happened), it must take out a long list of specific systems, while leaving the ability to change heading intact, and also without bringing down the plane. Similarly, in the even shakier decompression scenario, great weight has to be placed on the pilot making a series of very specific irrational decisions while in a hypoxic state, without that hypoxic state being sufficient to kill him until more than two hours after the onset of the emergency. Further complicating both of these theories is a complete lack of evidence: the 777 has no history of either of these types of failures, and the plane in question had no outstanding mechanical problems. The Malaysian investigators did look into whether the cargo could have started a fire, noting that it consisted mainly of ripe mangosteen fruits along with a small number of lithium batteries. Extensive attempts by the investigators to get mangosteen juice to react with the batteries and trigger a fire were unsuccessful. Nor has a comprehensive theory involving a cargo fire been produced which can account for all of the required elements — only a fire in the cockpit with a very specific spread pattern can satisfy most of the basic premises.
For the reasons listed above, most experts believe MH370 was the victim of some kind of deliberate action. There are three possible suspects: Captain Zaharie, First Officer Fariq, or one of the passengers. However, First Officer Fariq, an inexperienced young pilot with a bright future, a bubbly personality, and an upcoming wedding can be ruled out very easily.
Malaysian police performed background checks on all 227 passengers and found only two who were in any way suspicious. Two Iranians had boarded the flight with stolen passports, but further investigation revealed that they had no ties to any terrorist groups and were merely using the stolen passports to try to seek asylum in Europe. Absolutely nothing untoward about them could be found. Furthermore, it was difficult to explain how a passenger could have gotten into the cockpit without the pilots making any sort of distress call, nor was it clear how or why they would have effected the series of configuration and heading changes that occurred throughout the flight. And on top of that, no terrorist group ever claimed responsibility for hijacking MH370.
That left Captain Zaharie as the only viable suspect. Here too, investigations seemingly came up short. The Malaysian accident report, published in 2018, described him as a flawless pilot with no problems in his personal life and no obvious motivation to make a plane full of people disappear. But was that really the whole truth? In fact, the evidence shows Zaharie to be a much more complicated person than Malaysian authorities portrayed him to be.
The most widely reported piece of evidence tying Zaharie to the disappearance was a course he had charted on his home flight simulator about a month before the crash. Zaharie had a number of hobbies, including paragliding and flying model airplanes, but he also spent a lot of time at home on his computer playing flight simulator games. He sometimes uploaded videos of himself playing on his YouTube channel, where he comes off as affable and knowledgeable, if a bit socially awkward.
In 2014, a leaked Malaysian police report revealed that among Zaharie’s saved flight simulator sessions was a very odd route which ran up the Strait of Malacca, turned south after passing Sumatra, and then flew straight down into the Southern Indian Ocean before terminating in the vicinity of the seventh arc. Not only did the track resemble MH370’s actual flight path, it also contained a number of other intriguing details. For example, the track wasn’t really a track — rather, it was a series of brief clips lasting no more than a few seconds each, indicating that Zaharie had programmed it in advance then skipped along it to various points without actually playing through the entire hours-long flight. Furthermore, although initial reports indicated that the track had been intentionally saved by the user, later analysis showed that it was kept only in the system files, and certainly was not meant to be found. Was this a dry run? It seems too odd to be a coincidence.
Zaharie’s social life was also not as smooth as Malaysian authorities portrayed it to be. A combination of the leaked police report and interviews with people who knew him revealed that he had separated from his wife on an informal basis and was living alone in the family home. He had apparently been feeling lonely and sad for a long time before the disappearance. He admitted to friends that he sometimes spent his time off pacing around empty rooms, waiting for his next flight. Others said he seemed to be suffering from clinical depression. He had been obsessively stalking a pair of young models on social media. He was said to have slept regularly with the flight attendants, and his wife allegedly knew. He also was said to have had a number of mistresses, including one who was married. The woman in question denied that their affair was sexual in nature, and reported that they had stopped seeing each other months before the plane disappeared. However, she also told interviewers that she had exchanged several WhatsApp messages with Zaharie just a couple of days before the crash. What was in them she refused to say, citing a fear that they would be misinterpreted.
Zaharie was also deeply involved in Malaysian politics and was a big supporter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. In a strange coincidence, just hours before MH370 disappeared, Ibrahim was sentenced to prison on sodomy charges that were widely considered to be politically motivated. While this would have been a blow to Zaharie, it probably had nothing to do with what happened: if he was responsible, he had surely started planning the disappearance well before the sentence was handed down. He also left no manifesto or other statement of intent, which made it unlikely that he hijacked the plane as a form of political protest.
How these aspects of Zaharie’s life could have led him to commit an unspeakable act of mass murder is difficult to understand. But while he was said to be an affectionate and emotionally sensitive person who loved life, perhaps something dark lurked within him, something which he suppressed so thoroughly that no one else knew it was there. It is said that the people who seem happiest are sometimes also in the deepest agony, struggling against demons that they never reveal even to their closest friends. Perhaps, as he paced the empty rooms in his empty house waiting for his next flight, he wondered what it all meant. What was the point? Where was his life going? If he was destined to fade into irrelevance, maybe trying to make an airliner disappear without a trace seemed like a stimulating intellectual puzzle.
Very few people who display these sorts of traits go on to kill hundreds of people. But it’s also true that in many cases a motive is never established. For example, in October 2017, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on a concert in Las Vegas from a vantage point in the Mandalay Bay hotel, killing 60 people and injuring over 800 before turning his gun on himself. Despite an exhaustive investigation, the FBI was never able to determine why he did it. Sometimes, the answers just aren’t there to be found.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to believe that Zaharie hijacked his own plane is its simplicity. It’s the only explanation that doesn’t rely on a series of independently improbable events: given a desire to do it, everything else falls into place as a reasonable part of the plan. In fact, from the timing of the transponder failure to the specific locations of the turns to the flight path into the Southern Indian Ocean, it would be harder to come up with a better way to make an airliner disappear. Why believe that this is a coincidence when it could well have been the goal from the very beginning? Furthermore, whoever was flying the plane had extensive systems knowledge and excellent hand-flying ability. Who else on board had those skills but Zaharie? Indeed, it’s by far the easiest answer. What follows is a dramatized retelling of what might have happened on board MH370, based on the most likely scenario agreed upon by experts.
It’s 01:20 on March 8th, 2014. On board MH370, Zaharie has just said goodnight to Kuala Lumpur ATC. He has yet to make contact with Ho Chi Minh. It is at this moment that he initiates his carefully constructed plan. “Hey,” he says to First Officer Fariq, “The girls want to talk to you about something in the cabin.”
Fariq, unlikely to question the motives of his highly experienced captain and instructor, complies.
Seconds later, Captain Zaharie locks the cockpit door, then systematically shuts off any systems that could be used to track the plane. The transponder, ACARS, and ADS-B go dead. He also shuts off the main AC bus, just to be sure he got everything. The interior lights go dark; in the cabin, there are some exclamations of surprise. MH370 disappears from radar, but Zaharie has timed his takeover so that neither control center is likely to notice right away, buying him extra time.
Before Fariq can attempt to get back into the cockpit, Zaharie reaches up and flips the pressurization switch, cutting off bleed air to the cabin. The airplane rapidly begins to depressurize; Zaharie dons his oxygen mask, and so do the passengers.
Fariq and the flight attendants hurry to grab their own emergency oxygen supplies, but it’s hard to find them in the darkness. Before they can do so, Zaharie initiates a steep, dramatic turn to the left. Alarms blare in the cockpit: “BANK ANGLE! BANK ANGLE!” The stick shaker begins to rattle, warning of an impending stall, but Zaharie uses his incredible piloting skill to push the plane to its absolute limit. In the cabin, passengers and crew alike are thrown violently down and to the right. Fariq, gasping for air, is slammed against a bulkhead, unable to reach the supplemental oxygen. Zaharie knows that by the time he finishes his harrowing two-minute turn, anyone who didn’t manage to put on an oxygen mask will be dead. With Fariq quickly falling unconscious, the person most capable of stopping his diabolical plan is already out of the picture.
After 130 seconds, Zaharie rolls out on a southwesterly heading, aiming for the border between Malaysia and Thailand. By treading the line between the two countries, he hopes that both will view the unidentified plane as the other country’s problem. (Indeed, this is what happened: Thai military controllers saw the plane but assumed Malaysia was handling it; Malaysian military controllers, on the other hand, probably weren’t paying attention at all.) By this time, the passenger oxygen masks — designed to last only 12 minutes or so — have run dry, and the passengers are all either unconscious or dead.
After flying along the border for long enough to be sure that no one is scrambling jets to intercept him, Zaharie cuts across Malaysian airspace and heads for Penang, where his home town is located. Making a wide right turn around the island, he gives himself one last view of the place he grew up, and perhaps still loved. Fariq’s phone makes contact with a cell tower, and perhaps other phones do as well, but no one besides Zaharie is alive to place a call.
Zaharie now locks on to Airway Route N571 up the Strait of Malacca, just like he had practiced in the simulator. It’s a clever ruse — to anyone watching on primary radar, MH370 looks identical to numerous other planes heading sedately up the airway toward India.
After checking to make sure everyone else on board is dead, Zaharie powers the AC bus back up and repressurizes the airplane. Unbeknownst to him, the satellite communication unit starts to acknowledge the satellite again. This is his one mistake — but it’s a forgivable one, as hardly any airline pilots knew about this system feature before the disappearance of MH370. Were it not for this tiny omission, it’s unlikely that anyone would have discovered where the plane went after it left radar range.
Once he is sure he is out of range of both Malaysian and Indonesian radar coverage, Zaharie performs his final coup-de-grace: the left turn into the Indian Ocean. To this day we still don’t know exactly where he did it. He enters a southerly heading into the autopilot and leaves it there — his work is done. Before the flight, he had calculated that he had enough fuel to reach an area of the Southern Indian Ocean where the seabed terrain would make finding the plane difficult. But this is just a contingency plan, in case authorities somehow managed to track him after his final turn. By this point, perhaps Zaharie is listening to air traffic control frequencies on HF radio, laughing at Malaysian authorities’ desperate attempts to contact him. He’s done it; he’s gotten away.
Indeed, if this is what happened, MH370 was a masterpiece of flying directed toward an act of utmost depravity. There’s no doubt that Zaharie was physically capable of doing it. He was highly intelligent, had encyclopedic knowledge of all areas of aviation, and had accumulated more experience on the 777 than almost anyone else in Malaysia. And everything we know about the flight points toward the conclusion that the perpetrator didn’t want to be found. While the accidental crash theories must construct an elaborate series of coincidences to explain why the stars aligned to make the plane seemingly disappear without a trace, if one takes this to be the perpetrator’s intention then only one assumption is needed.
Without the wreckage, the clues will of course remain circumstantial only. But countless murderers have been sentenced to death on far less evidence. And it is true that the motive remains elusive. But Sherlock Holmes was right: once we have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.
After all of this, one question continues to haunt us: where is MH370? To this day the plane has not been found. As far as where to look, there are two main camps: those who believe the plane crashed uncontrolled into the sea in a high-speed dive, and those who believe Zaharie glided the plane to a controlled ditching. Which theory one subscribes to greatly influences where one thinks the search for the plane should be concentrated.
The ATSB search and the Ocean Infinity search were both based on an assumption that the plane was uncontrolled at the end. In support of this conclusion were a number of items of evidence. For one, there was a possibility that the final two handshakes revealed a high-speed descent. The burst frequency offset of these two handshakes was such that it could not be explained by the plane’s forward speed alone — something else must have influenced it. This “something else” could have been vertical speed. Experts estimated that based on the frequency offset, at the time of the first 08:19 handshake the plane may have been descending at a rate of at least 2,900 feet per minute — fairly normal for a plane without engines. But eight seconds later, at the time of the final handshake, this had increased to at least 13,800 feet per minute, well beyond the rates used in any normal emergency descent. However, engineers also could not rule out that some or even most of this frequency offset was due to the crystal oscillator inside the transmitter warming back up after the power interruption.
Further supporting the notion of an uncontrolled descent were a number of reverse drift studies which attempted to trace the widely scattered debris fragments back to a common point of origin. Although reverse drift derivation is a relatively new art and not especially reliable, a lot of effort went into the studies, and over the years their results have quite consistently pointed to a crash site close to the seventh arc. The debris itself also showed some evidence of a high-energy impact, as a couple of the parts came from inside the cabin and were seriously mangled, including the frame of a seat-back TV screen, and part of a closet door. Taken together, these pieces of evidence were enough to justify the locations of the original ATSB search and the Ocean Infinity search, respectively.
But as the ATSB search drew to a close without finding the plane, the popular opinion among independent experts began to shift. If the plane wasn’t in the search area, surely that meant the ATSB should consider the possibility that a pilot glided the plane outside of it? Accusations began to build that the ATSB never had enough evidence to justify choosing the “death dive” theory over the controlled glide theory, and that it had made that choice to avoid having to ask for more money, or to avoid offending Malaysia by making an independent determination that one of the pilots had deliberately crashed the plane. The ATSB reacted defensively, trying to give out as little information to journalists as possible. A number of ATSB officials made fools of themselves trying to avoid saying that a pilot crashed the plane on purpose. Of course, the likely possibility that Zaharie purposefully crashed the plane was not mutually exclusive with the assertion that the plane ended up in a death dive — he could very easily have killed himself before the plane ran out of fuel, or simply let it go down on its own while he watched. But by this point it was clear that Malaysian authorities had rejected the theory outright, and acknowledging the possibility that the pilot glided the plane to the end would entail publicly contradicting the Malaysians, who were leading the investigation.
Experts put forward a number of pieces of evidence which would support the idea that the plane was glided to the end. Several leading air crash investigators, along with the French team that initially examined the flaperon, reported that the damage to the trailing edge would be consistent with the plane impacting the water in a level attitude with the flaps extended to the landing position. The fact that the flaperon (as well as several other pieces) were relatively intact also suggested that the energy of the impact couldn’t have been especially great. Enough doubt existed around the vertical velocities and the reverse drift studies to write them off as unreliable. Some argued that had the plane totally fragmented on impact instead of breaking into a few large chunks, more pieces would have been found (although this was not a scientific analysis, as we don’t actually know how many pieces “should” be found given different levels of fragmentation). And given the notorious wind conditions in the Southern Indian Ocean, it was quite likely that the plane would have broken into several pieces even in a controlled ditching, explaining the parts from inside the cabin. Experts like journalist Ean Higgins and air crash investigator Larry Vance wrote entire books arguing for the controlled glide theory. But the best evidence for the theory was always the fact that searches based on the “death dive” theory had already been tried, and yet the plane was still missing.
Despite the detailed new studies of the controlled glide theory, Malaysia did not consider any of this to be the “credible new evidence” it needed to restart the search. In fact, Malaysian authorities seemed to be getting tired of MH370 and were more interested in making the problem go away than they were in finding the truth. When they published their final report on the crash in 2018, it proved to be a disappointment — there was hardly anything in it that wasn’t already known. Furthermore, it did not come to a conclusion about the cause of the crash. It acknowledged that the three turns had to have been intentional, and it acknowledged that there were no passengers who could have been behind an attempted hijacking. It acknowledged that it could not find any evidence of any mechanical problems with the plane, even unrelated to the crash. It acknowledged that the communications systems were almost certainly turned off on purpose. And it acknowledged that only a skilled pilot could have performed the initial turnback. But instead of concluding that the only viable explanation was that Zaharie had deliberately crashed the plane, the report ended by saying that the investigators could not determine the cause of the accident. The whole report seemed to be building up to a conclusion that Zaharie had done it, then ended by saying nothing at all. The problem was that Malaysia could not admit that one of its finest pilots flying for its state-owned flag carrier had deliberately taken 238 other people to their deaths. In terms of the country’s public image, Malaysia preferred that the crash remain a mystery.
The official report also did its best to paper over a number of failings that contributed to the plane not being found. In addition to the long delay in informing authorities — caused by missteps at the Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City control centers, as well as at Malaysia Airlines — criticism should have been levied at the Malaysian military. Why didn’t they intercept the unidentified aircraft as it was crossing the north of the country? The military claimed it was because the plane wasn’t a threat. But how could they have known that unless they had identified it as MH370, rather than a foreign incursion? And if they had identified it as MH370, why didn’t they tell anyone until days after the crash? The most likely explanation was that the military simply wasn’t monitoring its own radar at the time that the plane flew through Malaysian airspace. But admitting this would expose a massive security vulnerability by revealing Malaysia’s military to be dangerously incompetent. Probably for national security reasons, the official report had nothing to say about this at all.
Evidently, the “final” report was not in any way final, and expert and amateur sleuths alike continue to search for MH370. More studies come out every year, and while the controlled glide theory remains popular, recently the death dive theory has begun to gain some ground back. In 2021, two new mechanical analyses of the flaperon and a spoiler (recovered in August 2020) concluded that both control surfaces had likely separated in flight due to structural flutter after the plane exceeded its maximum speed. The reason they were so intact while most of the other parts weren’t might have been that they didn’t hit the water with the rest of the plane. Simultaneously, new and more advanced drift analyses continue to suggest that the debris has a common origin point near the seventh arc. The drift studies increasingly agree that the plane should be in a relatively small area, between 33 and 35 degrees south and 92 to 94 degrees east — right where a lot of people thought it should have been from the very beginning. Most of this area was covered by the ATSB and Ocean Infinity searches, but not quite all of it. Furthermore, as time goes on and technology improves, it’s increasingly clear that there was always another possibility for why the searches didn’t find the plane near the seventh arc: that it was there all along, and they just failed to see it. Advances in sonar scanning technology, particularly with an eye for missions in rough terrain like that near the seventh arc, may soon justify a second look at areas that were already searched, particularly if studies continue to point to the same range of locations.
Even without finding the plane, a number of lessons have been drawn from the disappearance of MH370. Many of the responses to the disappearance centered on the fact that in the 21st century, commercial airliners should not just disappear. In the interest of knowing where every plane is at all times, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) began requiring that all airliners manufactured after the 1st of January 2021 include autonomous tracking devices that broadcast their location once per minute. To give greater coverage of airplanes manufactured before that date, Inmarsat (which supplies satellite relays to nearly all commercial airliners) changed the frequency of its handshakes from once per hour to once every 15 minutes. The European Aviation Safety Agency began requiring that the “pingers” on aircraft flight recorders last at least 90 days, rather than 30. ICAO also amended its guidelines to require that airliner designs approved after 2020 include cockpit voice recorders that record 25 hours of conversations (instead of the current standard of two), and that flight data recorders either stream data to a location on the ground or be designed to float to the surface after a crash. (Like all ICAO regulations, these only come into force if adopted by the member states, which may take some time.)
So will MH370 one day be found? Most experts say that the answer is an emphatic yes. Opinions differ on the timeframe, but the agreement that someone will find it is nearly unanimous. It’s human nature to want to solve the greatest mysteries of our time, and MH370’s final resting place is high on the list. Most likely, someone with a lot of money or government connections will decide to mount a private search, like Robert Ballard’s successful mission to find RMS Titanic in 1985. Some think it will be soon, based on confident analyses predicting the near-exact location of the plane. Others, like Larry Vance, believe that the pilot could have glided the plane anywhere after the last handshake, resulting in a search area that is impractically large for current technology. But one day, he insists, a technology will be invented that will allow us to find it.
If we do one day find MH370, it’s not guaranteed that the wreckage will yield much that is of value. No one is sure whether the data from the black boxes can still be extracted after this many years underwater. Famed NTSB investigator John Goglia thinks the data will be preserved for many years yet by the low oxygen levels at the depths where MH370 likely lies; others think the data is probably already gone. And even if the black box data is recoverable, there’s no guarantee that there will be anything useful in it. The CVR might not reveal anything more than two hours of silence as the plane flies on autopilot over the Indian Ocean. It’s also possible that when he turned off all the communications systems, Zaharie also disabled the flight recorders, and the recorded data will abruptly end at 01:21 as the plane passes over IGARI. But the possibility that the black boxes contain the answers to all our questions about MH370 will always compel us to continue the search. Maybe Zaharie even left some kind of memento behind on the CVR, a sort of subtle “congratulations, mystery solved,” like the strange and prophetic flight path he left on his home flight simulator. Until it is found, we will continue to wonder.
Looking back, sometimes it’s still hard to believe that all of this actually happened. It’s still difficult to understand how a Boeing 777 could just disappear. Sometimes it feels like our world is too structured for such a bizarre story, like we made up with the whole thing in a collective fever dream. For the families of those aboard MH370, that’s what it feels like every day. The pain of not knowing is infinitely greater than the pain of loss. Every night, they go to sleep wondering: what were their loved ones’ last moments like? Did they suffer? Where are they now? Until they know, it’s hard to even begin to grieve.
The senselessness of the tragedy only compounds that pain. Some family members refuse to blame Zaharie — his family went through all the same trauma that they did, and to accuse him of murder strikes too close to home. For many, it’s easier to live with the idea that it was a tragic accident. But the truth, unfortunately, is much darker. Bar a major new revelation, it seems all but certain that Zaharie Ahmed Shah took control of a Boeing 777 full of passengers and deliberately tried to make it disappear. We may never know why he did it. Maybe he wanted to kill himself while still allowing his family to collect a life insurance payout. Maybe he saw disappearing an airliner as a challenge, a test of his intellectual and physical mettle. But in the end, maybe the “why” doesn’t matter — after all, what can be said about the inscrutable mind of a madman, a man so unassuming, and yet capable of such an incomprehensible act of destruction? No amount of wondering will bring back those 239 souls who flew away into the howling dark, never to return.
Update: Due to higher than expected circulation, resulting in more academic scrutiny than I had in mind when this article was conceived, anyone wishing to consult my evidence directly can receive a list of works cited upon request.
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