Documenting the story
MARCH 8TH, 2014 -KUALA LUMPUR INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, MALAYSIA
The Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 outbound to Beijing, China, onboard a Boeing 777 is being prepped up and received clearance for departure at
Onboard the flight is Captain Zaharie Ahmed Shah, the first Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid and a crew team of 10 members to serve 227 passengers.
AN HOUR LATER
The airplane is cruising over the South China Sea at this point, at an altitude of 35000ft. The Plane contacts the Kuala Lumpur center to inform that they are now entering the Vietnamese Airspace. The flight controller at Kuala Lumpur instructs to handoff to the Vietnamese Air Traffic Control at Ho Chi Minh and inform them; and wishes good night.
A MINUTE AND 43 SECONDS LATER
The aircraft now suddenly vanishes from the RADAR screens at Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok.
Path as seen by RADAR
Now the positions of the aircrafts on RADAR are tracked through emitted signals from one of the pair of transponders in the airplane. The fact that the aircraft completely disappeared from the screens without a trace lead to two inferences – either both the transponders ceased to work together or both of them were manually shut down or deactivated by someone on board. All the attempts made subsequently to contact the aircraft were downright failures.
FOUR HOURS LATER
The aircraft has now missed its
scheduled time of arrival at Beijing and thus, MH370 is now officially declared
missing. And with that announcement, the most expensive search effort in the
history of aviation finally commences.
THE SEARCH BEGINS
The initial search was concentrated around the location where the flight first disappeared from the RADAR screens, i.e., between South China Sea and the
Gulf of Thailand.
Once the Malay military intervened, we saw more information come into light. The long-range RADAR that the military employs is a lot different from the commercial ones. The Military ones use reflectance instead of being dependent on transponders that civilian systems do. When information obtained from Military RADAR was studied, it was obtained that the Aircraft, after its last contact with the ATC, deviated from its scheduled flight path with a
subtle turn to the right followed by a prolonged turn to the left. The aircraft had then flown back towards and across the Malaysian peninsula before turning right near the island of Penang. It maintained this northwesterly heading until it escaped the radar’s coverage.
Military and Commercial RADAR Paths
Over the next few days, the Strait of Malacca, the Andaman Sea, and the Bay of Bengal was scoured by a multinational fleet of aircraft and vessels, but there was no trace of Flight 370.
SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS DATA
This aircraft, like all modern aircrafts, was equipped with a Satellite Communications Terminal, or SATCOM, which sends and receives transmissions to and from the ground. This aircraft’s SATCOM was up and running before it took off, and was connected to Perth, Australia. The Perth Station then kept a detailed record of every incoming and outgoing connections between the aircraft and the ground controls.
This aircraft was connected to Perth via Imarsat-3
How SATCOM works
Once the aircraft disappeared, even
the SATCOM link seemed to be severed considering the terminal ceased to respond
altogether. But three minutes after the flight vanished, the SATCOM link was
established again and wasn’t disconnected for the next six hours. (When it
assumed the flight must have crashed due to fuel exhaustion).
While these transmissions did not contain any information about the flight’s position, investigators were able to measure the distance between the satellite and the aircraft at the time of each transmission based on how long it took those transmissions to be sent and received. This generated seven rings of possible locations from which seven of these transmissions are thought to have originated.
The seven generated rings
By taking fuel consumption, speed, and other factors into account, flight path analysis indicated the most probable origin of the final transmission to be somewhere along this arc in the southern Indian Ocean.
The Underwater search
THE EXPANSION OF SEARCH
The search effort shifted accordingly, and as the region fell within the jurisdiction of Australia, the Australian government took charge of the operation. A
new fleet of aircraft and vessels gradually covered more than 4,500,000 km2 of ocean, but Flight 370 was nowhere to be found.
MH370 was also equipped with two underwater locator beacons which had a battery life of some 40 days, and as the deadline approached in early April, signals with a pulse and frequency somewhat like the signal emitted by the beacons were detected at depths of up to 3,000 meters.
Underwater Locator Beacon
An autonomous submersible then spent weeks scanning the seafloor where the signals had been detected, but no wreckage was ever found. And nothing would be found until more than 16 months later when a discovery was made on the opposite side of the Indian Ocean.
A DISCOVERY, AT LAST
On the 29th of July 2015, a group of people was cleaning up a beach in Réunion, a small island to the east of Madagascar, when they stumbled upon this
2-meter-long metallic object covered in barnacles.
Found object at Réunion
Aviation experts quickly identified the object as a section of an aircraft wing known as a flaperon. Upon closer inspection, internal markings, including dates and serial numbers, conclusively ascertained the flaperon belonged to Flight 370. There was now tangible evidence that Flight 370 had crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The discovery of the flaperon prompted numerous searches along beaches and shorelines of southeastern Africa, and at least 31 additional items of interest have since been recovered and examined.
The right wing flaperon of a Boeing 777-200
THE SEARCH ENDS
By this point some 120,000 km2 of seabed had been scrutinized. The search effort was then resumed by an American salvage company known as Ocean Infinity, but after more than a year of searching, they too came up emptyhanded. Unless the final resting place of Flight 370 can be located, it may be impossible to determine exactly why it crashed.
Theories regarding what might have happened
There has been no shortage of theories revolving around this disappearance.
HIJACKING, DANGEROUS CARGO
Suspicions were raised when two of the
passengers in the flight manifest were found to be flying with stolen passports
which brought up concerns about hijacking. But since both of these passengers
were found not linked with any of the terrorist organizations, it was
determined that they were traveling under false passports to seek asylum
Passengers on stolen passports
Apart from them, another time the similar suspicions came up, this time when one of the passengers was identified as a flight engineer who might have possessed enough expertise to hijack and take control of a 777.
Amongst the 11 metric tons of cargo, the aircraft carried a shipment of Lithium ion batteries when has led to suspicions that a fire might have broken out mid flight due to the batteries.
Electrical malfunction is also on the books due to the fact that both the transponders disabling, and the loss of communications might have been caused by the same. But the fact that the aircraft wasn’t turned around in that case as an emergency and the aircraft kept going for the next six hours, the theory is mostly considered debunked.
LOSS OF CABIN PRESSURE
Another theory plays out incapacitation of the crew due to sudden or gradual loss of cabin pressure. The pilots could have fell unconscious while the aircraft could continue to fly on autopilot (Just like what happened in Helios Airways flight 552 on August 2005). But this theory can be debunked immediately by the fact that the Aircraft did take a few turns and alterations in heading. This definitely reinstates the fact that manual control of the aircraft was present.
PILOT INSTIGATED HIJACKING
As of late June 2014, news of a special investigation with the captain as the prime suspect broke out. Basically, a search of his home uncovered a flight simulator which, in the previous records, had a route that suspiciously ended in the southern Indian Ocean. But there was no official acknowledgement of the same in public, until way later in 2016, when a few confidential documents which contained the investigation conducted by the Royal Malaysia Police in 2014 got leaked.
Cpt Zaharie’s Flight Simulator
These documents made it clear that
such a route had not only been recovered but thoroughly examined. Soon
thereafter, the Malaysian government confirmed the existence of this simulated
(Red – Simulated path on the flight simulator; Yellow – Military Radar path)
The data recovered consists of seven coordinates. However, it’s not clear whether the coordinates originate from the same flight session. In other words, it might not be correct to simply trace a continuous line between these seven coordinates as they could be from separate sessions.
Thus, the Malaysian police cleared the captain, though the search operations were definitely influenced directly by this investigation.
But the biggest question that comes up with the same is, if Captain Zaharie was ultimately responsible for crashing the aircraft knowingly, what could be the motive behind the same? He was happily married with three kids, and had more than 18,000 hours of flight with a spotless track record. Apart from that, he had no history of any mental illnesses nor had any recent changes in his lifestyle. The only theory that arises through some people is that he might have been politically motivated with the hijacking considering the fact that he was an avid supporter of a democratic political opposition leader who was given a 5-year term sentence in the prison mere hours before the flight.
Again, we’re missing some crucial pieces of evidence, and without that, we cannot pinpoint to any of the pilots in this case to be a suspect or a cause.
The Official Conclusion
Based on the final report that the Malaysian Government and the Authorities subsequently released in 2018, the causality of the incidence could not be attributed to a malfunction. Hence this was certain that a manual manipulation of the aircraft was definitely in the works.
With that being said, the uncertainty of these findings is repeatedly emphasized due to the limited evidence available, and the report does never explicitly state the flight was hijacked. In fact, no real conclusion is reached.
Conspiracies around the Globe
Some believe there was no crash but that the aircraft was shot down by an American naval base in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The satellite transmissions where then supposedly forged as part of a massive cover up.
Others believe the aircraft turned right towards India and traveled as far north as Kazakhstan completely undetected. Debris was then supposedly planted along shorelines of southeastern Africa as part of a massive cover up.
Another theory suggests the aircraft was remotely hijacked and controlled by someone on the ground
These theories and more are indeed too much on the conspirational side, and thus, its better not to focus too much on the same.