Shortcuts / 07 March 2024

Flight MH370

This Friday, 8 March will mark the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 – a mystery that captured the world’s attention at the time, and still hasn’t been resolved.

First, let’s get the facts down. 
Good idea. We know that MH370 was a flight between Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, to Beijing, China. It was a Boeing 777 plane with 227 passengers and 12 crew, and it took off successfully just after midnight Malaysia time on 8 March 2014.

What happened next?
What we know about the flight comes from extensive reports and investigations carried out in the aftermath of the disappearance – and what those reports tell us is that the first 40 minutes of the flight were entirely normal.

Then after 40 minutes…?
After that time, the pilot signed off from Malaysia’s air controllers – as normal – and was meant to continue contact with Vietnam’s air controllers. But that never happened. Instead, the aircraft’s location device, known as a transponder, went offline.

So how was the plane being tracked?
From the reports, we know that a Malaysian military radar picked up the plane and tracked it as it made a sharp turn to the left, almost turning around entirely. At this point, other aircraft were being asked to make radio contact with MH370, but they got no reply.

Why not?
We simply don’t know. What we do know from the military radar is that the plane continued to travel southwest. The military radar lost the signal after about an hour, at around 2:20am (Malaysia time).

Did we get any other information about the plane’s flight?
We did. Minutes after the military radar lost the plane, the aircraft received and responded to an automated ping from a satellite system. It’s important to note, though, that these were automated responses from the plane, so they don’t tell us anything about any human behaviour inside the aircraft at that time.

Right. What else do we know?
The plane responded to an automated ping at 8:11am, but the satellite got no response to the next ping at 9:15am. We also know that for people on the ground the morning that MH370 disappeared, panic had already set in.

How so?
Malaysian Airlines announced that the plane had vanished, and the search and rescue operations began almost immediately. It was a mad scramble at this point – planes were being flown over stretches of the ocean, merchant vessels were asked to check out any possible leads, and all the while the relatives of the passengers and crew were demanding answers…

Do they get any?
In a way… on March 24, weeks after the plane first disappeared, the PM of Malaysia Najib Razak held a press conference. He said the presumption was that flight MH370 crashed into the Indian Ocean and all 239 people on board were presumed dead.

Who were the victims?
The majority of people on board were Chinese citizens, with the next largest group being Malaysians. But there were over a dozen nationalities on board, including citizens of France, New Zealand, and the US – as well as 7 Australian citizens and residents.

Did the search keep going?
You bet it did. Given the proximity of the search area to Australia’s west coast, we took over coordinating the search effort. The official search lasted for 3 years and became the biggest aircraft search in the history of aviation.

Surely they found something?
In 2015 and 2016 aircraft debris started to wash up on the eastern shores of Africa, and investigators in Australia confirmed that some of this debris was almost certainly from flight MH370. One part of a wing also gave a clue as to the demise of the plane…

What was the clue?
According to a final report prepared by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the wing part showed that the landing flaps were probably not extended. That indicated that the plane wasn’t being piloted or controlled in any way when it crashed into the ocean. Which leads us to the theories about why the plane crashed…

What are the theories?
There are several, and we should be very clear that they are unsubstantiated. One early theory was that the pilot, a man by the name of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, carried out mass murder and suicide – although police looked at all the crew’s records and found “no significant behavioural changes” in the lead up to the disappearance.

Did they also look at the passengers on board?
They did, and officials found that 2 people on the flight were travelling on stolen passports. But Interpol, the international police agency, concluded that the men were asylum seekers and said they didn’t believe there was any kind of terrorism involved in the plane’s disappearance.

What other theories are there?
One possible explanation for what seems like hours of flight over the Indian Ocean is that the plane suffered a “mass hypoxia event” – where all the oxygen left the cabin. That would have incapacitated all the crew and passengers. Or else, some people have speculated that the roughly 200kg of lithium batteries in the cargo could have caused a catastrophic fire. There are also other, wilder theories, but we’re not even going to touch those…

Good idea. So, 10 years on, is anything new happening?
A private company called Ocean Infinity has proposed a new search. Ocean Infinity operates autonomous robots that scan the ocean floor, and they’ve proposed to the Malaysian government that they conduct a “no find, no fee” search of a wider area of the Indian Ocean.

It’s clear that as long as this mystery remains unsolved, people will be trying to figure it out.

Squiz recommends:
Reading: For the 10th anniversary of the disappearance, The Guardian has a guide covering the search for flight MH370, including some maps of the flight and search area.

Watching: A 3-part British documentary about the families of the victims, called MH370: The Lost Flight – view it for free on SBS on Demand.

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