Chasing Malaysian Airlines MH370
It grabbed the world's attention because it was unimaginable, impossible: a Boeing 777 with 239 people on board disappeared completely. It was like science fiction but it couldn't be because it was real. Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014, and with the exception of a few unexpected appearances on radar and satellite data, was never seen again. It did not land anywhere, and there was no record of a crash. It simply vanished. Predictably, wild theories popped up everywhere, everything from a hijacking to an alien abduction. Together we're going to take a deep dive into the events of that night, into the conspiracy theories, and finally compare them against what we think actually happened to history's most infamous vanished aircraft.
The basic facts begin with the plane's late night departure from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing. About 40 minutes later they signed off from Kuala Lumpur air traffic control over the South China Sea, about halfway between Malaysia and Vietnam. They stopped squawking the ID code they used with Kuala Lumpur. From that point on, everything else we know about the plane's flight comes from a few scattered radar and satellite contacts. Minutes after signing off, they made a U-turn and headed back for Malaysia. The plane was equipped with a system called ACARS that periodically transmits maintenance data, and the ACARS was no longer working after this U-turn. Later they began a right turn and were last detected by military radar out over the Andaman Sea, west of Thailand. The final contact was between an Inmarsat satellite and the aircraft's automated satellite data unit, a simple handshake connection because there were no aircraft systems using the satellite. This handshake does not include any location data, but Inmarsat was able to locate the plane as having been somewhere along an arc representing a specific distance from the satellite. This arc stretches across a few thousand kilometers of the Indian Ocean, west of Australia. And that was about when the plane's fuel would have run out. Nothing more was ever heard from MH370.
Searches were unsuccessful. Over the subsequent weeks and months, the flight path was refined, search areas redefined, and search efforts were gradually given up. But while that was happening out over the ocean, back on land, conspiracy theories had been piling up.
The earliest and most obvious theories were the first: claims of hijackings, or perhaps a suicide by one of the pilots, the massively experienced captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and his young copilot Fariq Abdul Hamid. A lot of attention focused on Shah. He had just separated from his wife, he didn't appear to have any future plans on his calendar, and his flight simulator game at home had some unusual Indian Ocean landings on it. Despite intense scrutiny for years, Shah was eventually exonerated (more or less), as none of the evidence was compelling enough.
One colorful theory is that the plane was headed to Diego Garcia Island in the western Indian Ocean — perhaps as the result of a hijacking — where there is a joint British-American military base and intelligence hub. This theory was promoted by French author and former airline executive Marc Dugain who claims the Americans would have shot it down when they saw it approaching their airspace. He also claims to have interviewed residents of the Maldives who saw an airliner fly low over their islands. However, the Maldives are not on the way to Diego Garcia, eyewitness reports from the Maldives did not seem to exist until three months after the disappearance, and an actual shootdown would have produced voluminous debris that should have been easy to spot.
There are various conspiracy theories implicating North Korea for having hijacked the plane. Some say North Korea wanted to reverse engineer the Boeing 777 to advance its own aircraft industry, some say the plane was brought there on purpose to deliver a nuclear weapon to the North Koreans, and some say that the US shot it down to prevent this. However all stories that have the plane headed to North Korea are clearly ruled out by all the satellite and radar data.
There has even been a recent unevidenced claim by an independent conspiracy theorist that a new Russian spy satellite observed MH370 crash into the Bay of Bengal and Vladimir Putin knows all about it, but hasn't said anything because he doesn't want the West to know about the satellite.
Another Putin claim was made based on the fact that the US had initiated sanctions against Russia just before the disappearance; and so to retaliate, Putin had hijackers on the plane take it over and secretly fly it to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. How this action against a Malaysian plane would constitute meaningful retaliation against the United States was not convincingly argued.
There has also, of course, been every manner of loony conspiracy theory: everything from alien abductions to time warps to alternate universes. A (highly unscientific) poll on the CNN website once revealed that 9% of respondents felt that any of several supernatural fates could have happened to MH370.
Within days of the flight's disappearance, writers and bloggers of the Air Line Pilots Association had a fairly complete explanation for a probable scenario that could have taken place; one that fit all the facts and involved nothing extraordinary. In fact, when you stick to the aviation web sites and avoid the consumer news sites, where the reporting was usually by non-experts, there is much less confusion and speculation about the disappearance.
Most telling for the pilots' theory are the facts that the automated communications stopped, suggesting that the ACARS system could have been damaged; and that the emergency locator beacon was never triggered while within range of anyone on the ground who could have heard it, suggesting that whatever happened was not sudden and catastrophic. It seems probable that the pilots became incapacitated. So what's a plausible scenario that can explain all three of these likelihoods? The pilot community spoke up early and loudly: the smell of smoke.
Modern airliners have lots of electronics, lots of wiring, and a thousand places where something can go wrong. MH370 was also carrying a cargo of 220kg of lithium-ion batteries. Any one of these things could have started to smolder or caused some wires to melt and put a whiff of smoke into the cockpit. Airline pilots all agreed on what would be the first thing they'd do when smelling smoke: turn off all the unnecessary electronics, everything that's not required to keep you in the air, everything that might be burning; probably even the radios. This would nicely explain the ACARS no longer transmitting, and it would also nicely explain the lack of radio communications. The emergency locator beacon, which cannot be switched off, would have had nothing to trigger it yet.
Whatever might have been melting or burning likely got worse, and the pilots became incapacitated, possibly by carbon monoxide, possibly by decompression from an unknown cause. By then they had set the course to head for an emergency landing site; but unconscious as they were, they overflew it on autopilot until the plane ran out of fuel, crashing somewhere west of Australia into the Indian Ocean. By then, the emergency locator beacon would be out of range of any receivers.
If smoke was filling the cockpit, we tend to immediately ask why the pilots didn't radio to report an emergency? That seems like a rational question to ask; and we've all seen it in movies. As soon as the slightest problem arises, the pilot grabs his radio and shouts "Mayday, mayday, mayday!"
But in the real world, that is not how pilots are trained to handle emergency situations. Nobody on the ground can help you with the smoke in your cockpit. The #1 mantra for all pilots consists of three words: aviate, navigate, communicate. Aviating — flying the plane — is always the first priority. No matter what problem is happening, the first thing pilots should focus on is keeping the plane flying safely. A popularly-cited case where this didn't happen was the crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 which we talked about in episode 563: the pilots' attention was on debugging the landing gear warning light, and they didn't notice that they flew the plane straight into the ground.
We know that Shah and Hamid got as far as the next step, navigate, because they made a U-turn to head back to an alternate landing site, and probably one other turn shortly thereafter. Obviously they never satisfactorily got through that step before being incapacitated. Airline pilots are generally not surprised that, whatever happened, talking on the radio never made it to the top of their priority list.
The reconstructed flight path that we now know the plane followed is consistent with airline pilots' recommendations of what backup airports they would have chosen to head toward at various points in the flight. The first U-turn put them on a direct vector to Pulau Langkawi, which was much preferred over Kuala Lumpur because of its long runways and flat terrain surrounding it. Everything the plane did is what pilots say they would have done.
As evidence did begin to appear over the years, it was all consistent with the theory of a crash into the ocean west of Australia. Beginning in July 2015, aircraft parts that were all eventually positively identified as coming from that specific Boeing 777 began to wash up on the beaches of the island of Reunión, the coast of Mozambique, South Africa, and Pemba Island off Tanzania, all in the western Indian Ocean. Over 20 aircraft parts have been found at the time of this podcast. All were found where they would be expected to have drifted over time, had the plane crashed in this general area of ocean west of Australia. None of the debris conveyed any clues about the cause of the crash, but they do prove, of course, that the plane ended up in pieces in the ocean, and not secretly landed in Russia or transported through an alien space warp.
The loss of MH370 renewed longstanding calls for technology that would allow all commercial aircraft to be tracked by satellite, something that many people are surprised to learn has not already been the case. It's called space-based ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance broadcast) using the Iridium NEXT satellites. Most of the world's next-generation air traffic control systems plan to require space-based ADS-B. MH370 used conventional radio-based ADS-B that transmitted to ground stations, but it was out of range and the pilots had switched it off anyway. With a space-based system with global coverage, no commercial plane would ever get lost again (so long as the system is working), and controllers would know right away whenever a plane deviated substantially from a filed flight plan.
Correction: An earlier version of this did not specify that space-based ADS-B would be necessary for global coverage, and failed to mention that MH370 was already using conventional ADS-B. - BD
Had MH370 used such a system, we'd have known exactly when and where it went down, and probably would have had fighters escorting it by the time it struck out southbound over the Indian Ocean, and trying to communicate with it. We may not have been able to save lives in this case, but we would have greatly eased the suffering of the family members. It is perhaps small comfort to them to know that the severity of their own trauma has at least given a push toward a day when others who lose loved ones will never have to suffer the same lack of closure.
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