On Sunday March 8, it will be exactly one year since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur’s international airport en route for Beijing. The chain of events that then unfolded is still hard to believe: the Boeing 777 with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board disappeared without a trace and, 12 months later, what happened to it is still a mystery.
There are many people, including Malaysia’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who say that the fate of the plane is being concealed. The relatives and friends of those on board are still awaiting concrete evidence of what happened to their loved ones. Despite a massive international search, no debris has been found on land or in the ocean.
There is no concrete evidence that MH370 actually crashed and many surmise that the plane landed somewhere.
Sarah Bajc, the girlfriend of passenger Philip Wood (pictured left with Bajc), has claimed from the beginning that there has been a conspiracy. More recently, she told the Malay Mail Online that the official story – that the plane flew on for about six hours after it disappeared and went down in the southern Indian Ocean, about 2,000 kilometres off the western coast of Australia – had so many holes in it that it was impossible to believe.
“I hear all the theories,’ she was quoted as saying. “Some of them are absolutely crazy, but most of them are more believable to me than the official story.”
There has been a marked silence from the Malaysian government about the criminal investigations related to the disappearance of MH370. The release of an interim accident and investigation report by an international team has been expected tomorrow (March 7). The director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said today that it would be published soon.
The search in the “Roaring Forties” continues, but much doubt has been cast on the data analysis by the British company Inmarsat that prompted the southern search. The conclusion that the flight ended in the southern Indian Ocean is based solely on the analysis by experts at Inmarsat of satellite pings – or handshakes – from the aircraft. Even Inmarsat has said it cannot be 100 percent sure that its analysis is correct.
Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, said on Thursday (March 5): “I can’t promise that the search will go on at this intensity forever, but we will continue our very best efforts to resolve this mystery and provide some answers.” Relatives of those on board MH370 fear the search for the plane will end without any answers, and its disappearance will be consigned to the annals of history.
The Australia-led operation is the biggest air and sea search ever carried out. It has involved 65 aircraft and 95 vessels and the search teams have had to deal with horrendous weather, including two cyclones. More than 26,800 square kilometres of the mapped ocean floor – which is about 40 per cent of the priority search area – have now been examined in detail.
The cost of the operation is huge. Jointly funded by Australia and Malaysia, it has a budget of 120 million AUD (about 93 million US$). Australia committed 93 million AUD (about 73 million US$), of which about 60 million AUD (about 47 million US$) has been allocated to the underwater search. If there are no delays, the underwater search is expected to be completed some time in May.
Theories still abound
Many thousands of words have been written about MH370, and much media airtime has been devoted to speculation about what might or might not have happened to the plane. During the month after its disappearance, the American TV channel CNN ran wall-to-wall coverage.
One of the most recent theories, put forward by private pilot and science writer Jeff Wise (pictured left), who was on CNN up to six times a day in the weeks after MH370 disappeared, is that the aircraft landed at the Yubileyniy airstrip in Kazakhstan.
Wise, who last month released an e-book about MH370 entitled The Plane That Wasn’t There, argues that hijackers could have tampered with the Burst Frequency Offset (BFO) data¹, which was used by investigators to work out where the plane had gone.
“Once I threw out the troublesome BFO data, all the inexplicable coincidences and mismatched data went away,” Wise wrote in an article for New York magazine. “The answer became wonderfully simple. The plane must have gone north.”
Wise does admit that his theory lacks a clear rationale, and he was unable to convince the engineers and scientists with whom he had worked online that his idea was plausible. He points the finger at Russia, but then pours water on his own theory. “Why, exactly, would Putin want to steal a Malaysian passenger plane? ” he asks, adding: “It’s hard to come up with a plausible motive for an act that has no apparent beneficiaries.”
Aviation expert Sylvia Wrigley, who also wrote a book about MH370, said no aircraft had previously been tracked using Inmarsat’s BFO data. “The idea that it was even possible was a major revelation, even to Inmarsat,” she wrote. Therefore, she said, the notion that hijackers would deliberately falsify the data in order to lead investigators on a wild goose chase was “crazy” and “inconceivably sophisticated”.
Wrigley’s own theory is that a stray bullet fired in a struggle during a doomed hijacking attempt may have caused slow decompression and downed the missing plane.
One of the main theories that emerged at the time of MH370’s disappearance is that it was hijacked to Diego Garcia and would later be used for a false flag operation.
There has also been speculation that the plane was shot down by the United States military when it was en route to Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean that is owned by the British and is home to a major US military base.
This is a theory that has been put forward by the former director of the French airline Proteus, Marc Dugain. He has suggested that US military personnel may have shot down MH370 over the Indian Ocean to prevent it being used to attack the Diego Garcia base.
Dugain also speculated that the plane may have been forced to divert from its flight path because of remote hacking or an on-board fire.
He pointed to the testimony of residents of the Maldives who said they saw an airliner travelling towards Diego Garcia on March 8, but whose claims were dismissed.
According to France Inter radio, Dugain said he had been warned off delving too deeply into the fate of flight MH370 by a British intelligence officer who reportedly told him that he was taking risks.
The president and CEO of Emirates airlines, Sir Tim Clark, made headlines in October when – in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel – he said he was sceptical about the satellite handshakes that positioned the plane in the Southern Indian Ocean.
Mahathir Mohamad has speculated that someone is not giving the full picture of how the aircraft disappeared. In a post on his blog in May last year, the former prime minister postulated that the pilot of MH370 lost control of the aircraft after someone directly or remotely activated equipment to seize control of the aircraft.
It was a waste of time and money to look for debris or an oil slick or to listen for pings from the black box, Mahathir wrote. “Someone is hiding something. It is not fair that MAS and Malaysia should take the blame.”
That an aircraft the size of MH370 could simply disappear without a trace, “not even a seat cushion”, was downright suspicious, he said.
Interviewed by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Sarah Bajc said: “There is only one explanation of two unpleasant options: either the Malaysian government is grossly negligent due to incompetence and corruption to the point that they have failed to handle even the simplest aspects of this situation, from the beginning until today, or they are intentionally covering up what really happened, either because they are to blame, or at the request of some other power.”
Of the many questions being asked is the one about MH370’s cargo. Was the plane really carrying a large consignment of mangosteen fruits or was there something on the aircraft that we don’t know about?
Accusing the pilot
Numerous journalists have pointed the finger at the pilot of the plane, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. The right-wing Daily Mail newspaper in England portrayed him as a political fanatic.
The media also spotlighted the fact that plane’s co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, was accused of committing a security breach in 2011, letting two women into the cockpit on a flight from Thailand.
Friends and relatives of Zaharie say they do not believe he could have hijacked the plane, and there is no actual evidence that either of the pilots are responsible for the disappearance of flight MH370.
New Zealand journalist Geoff Taylor and pilot Ewan Wilson went as far as producing a book in which they claim that Zaharie committed suicide, bringing MH370 and its passengers with him. Giving full rein to their imaginations, they claimed that Zaharie deliberately depressurised the cabin and performed a controlled ditching in the sea. There is not a shred of evidence to back up their theory and the book, in which the authors dream up a very detailed on-board scenario, outraged Zaharie’s friends and family.
A British pilot, Captain Simon Hardy, also believes that Flight MH370 plane was intentionally landed on the water and sank intact in the southern Indian Ocean. Again, he makes claims about the possible actions of Captain Zaharie without a single shred of evidence. Zaharie is from Penang and Hardy claims the pilot performed a final “fly-past” of that island before heading south.
On Friday, Malaysia’s pro-government New Straits Times ran a story from the New York Times News Service with the headline ‘Rogue Pilot’ emerges as main theory in loss of Malaysian plane, but it cited only speculation from a retired Malaysia Airlines pilot and an Australian airline executive and itself cast much doubt on the “rogue pilot” idea, saying the evidence was limited and circumstantial and the theory was full of holes, like lack of a motive.
It even added that psychological profiles of Zaharie did not suggest that he could have taken the plane down or would have had a compelling reason for doing so. As often happen, not least with MH370, the story does not back up the headline.
Plane did a turn-around
It is now generally accepted that MH370 did do a turn-around after disappearing from the Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control Centre’s radar screen at 1.21 a.m. local time on March 8, just after it passed waypoint IGARI².
The plane was reported missing at 1.38 a.m. The KL Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) was activated at 5.30 a.m. after all efforts to locate or communicate with MH370 had failed.
The Malaysian authorities have been criticised over this four-hour gap between the plane’s apparent disappearance and the activation of a search and rescue operation, and for the many mixed messages given out in the days and weeks after MH370 went missing.
Systems “deliberately switched off”
Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak (pictured left), said on March 15 that there was a high degree of certainty that someone on board Flight MH370 deliberately disabled the plane’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which transmits information about an aircraft’s engine health, and switched off the transponder, which transmits such details as altitude, speed, and location.
Najib said the plane’s movements were “consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane”. The plane did turn around after take-off, and flew on well after its apparent disappearance, he added.
The prime minister said the ACARS was disabled just before the aircraft reached the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, at 1.07 a.m. Shortly afterwards, near the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control, the aircraft’s transponder was switched off, he added.
MH370 then turned around and flew west back over peninsular Malaysia before turning northwest, he said.
Military radar then picked up a signal from what is now believed to be flight MH370 on the west coast of the peninsular Malaysia. Contact with this radar was lost at about 2.15 local time.
Just before civilian radar contact was lost at the point of handover from air traffic controllers in KL to those in Ho Chi Minh City, there was a goodnight message from the cockpit of MH370. The Malaysian government has released a transcript and audio of this message and states that it contains nothing abnormal, but there have been allegations that the audio has been edited.
Although the ACARS and transponder were both switched off, there was still automatic communication between MH370 and a satellite. According to the investigators, the last confirmed communication between the plane and the satellite was at 8.19 a.m. on March 8. In the preliminary report into the plane’s disappearance, the Malaysian transport ministry said the aircraft communicated seven times with the satellite, confirming that the system was still logged onto the network.
Relatives stunned by government announcement
In the early stages of the search for MH370, and based on analysis of these satellite pings, investigators considered two possible routes for the aircraft: one in a northern corridor stretching roughly from the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to northern Thailand and the other in a southern corridor stretching from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
There was much distress among relatives of those on board MH370 when Najib announced suddenly on March 24 that investigators had concluded that the flight had ended in the southern Indian Ocean, in one of the most inaccessible areas of the planet.
Najib said that, “based on their new analysis”, Inmarsat and the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) had concluded that MH370 flew along the southern corridor, and that its last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth
He added: “This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites. It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”
The next day, the chairman of Malaysia Airlines, Mohammad Nor Yusof, said that, based on the new evidence announced by Najib, it had to be accepted that flight MH370 was lost in the southern Indian Ocean and no-one had survived.
There was anger over the fact that Malaysia Airlines sent text messages to relatives to warn them of Najib’s upcoming announcement. The company defended itself, saying it was given just half an hour to inform about 1,000 people.
In reporting Najib’s announcement, the media spoke of MH370 crashing in the Southern Indian Ocean. On April 1, Malaysia’s defence minister and acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein (pictured left), insisted that Najib had not used the word crash. This is true, but the concern about semantics came as a surprise.
Hishammuddin was interviewed for the Australian news documentary series Four Corners and eyebrows have been raised about remarks he made when asked why the Malaysian military had not scrambled jets when an unidentified plane was spotted on their radar.
The minister said the plane detected on military radar was a commercial airliner and was not deemed to be a hostile aircraft. It was coming from Malaysian airspace, he said. When the Four Corners reporter asked why military jets were not sent up to investigate, Hishammuddin replied: “Are you going to say that we are going to shoot it down? If we are not going to shoot it down, what’s the point of sending it [a jet fighter] up?”
It was a strange reply to make to a question that made no mention of a plane being shot down.
Also, primary military radar cannot actually identify a plane; it just shows a dot on the screen. So how could the military have been sure that the object detected was not hostile?
Flight disappearance declared an accident
In Malaysia’s most recent announcement about MH370, on January 29, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman (pictured left), officially declared the flight’s disappearance to be an accident. He said in a recorded televised address that all the passengers and crew on board were presumed to have died.
He said the underwater search in the Southern Indian Ocean was continuing, but after 327 days, and based on available data, survivability in the defined area was “highly unlikely”.
Many relatives are refusing to accept the accident declaration, given that there is no actual evidence as to the cause of the plane’s disappearance.
Azharuddin also said that Malaysia Airlines was ready to proceed immediately with the process of giving compensation to the next-of-kin of those on the flight. Only very few families have so far taken up offers of compensation.
A new National Geographic documentary about Flight MH370 entitled “Malaysian 370: What Happened?”, scheduled to be broadcast on March 8, contains claims that the plane may have been deliberately flown off course by someone in the cockpit.
Aviation disaster experts have analysed satellite data from the plane and conclude that the plane did fly on for hours after losing radar contact.
According to the documentary, MH370 made three turns after the last radio call was made from the cockpit: first a turn to the left, then two more, taking the plane west, then south towards Antarctica.
According to Malcolm Brenner, a leading expert in the causes of aviation disasters, these turns strongly suggest that someone in the cockpit deliberately flew MH370 off course.
Other theories include the one put forward in a book called Flight MH370: The Mystery by Nigel Cawthorne, who suggests the plane could have been shot down during a joint military exercise between the United States and Thailand in the South China Sea.
Chinese blogger He Xin has no evidence to back up his theory, but says MH370 was taken over in a CIA special operation to gain control of a “special person” or “special object” on the plane. He Xin surmises that the plane was forced to land at Diego Garcia, then was dismantled inside an aircraft hanger before being burned and dumped in the sea.
The suffering of relatives
The past 12 months have been an emotional roller coaster for relatives and friends of those on board MH370. The search area has moved several times since it was initially thought that the plane had gone down in the South China Sea and there have been numerous sightings of possible debris, none of which turned out to be from the missing plane.
Then, teams searching in the southern Indian Ocean thought they had picked up signals coming from the plane’s flight recorders, but the black box has never been found.
The lack of evidence and endless speculation is a nightmare for those whose loved ones are missing.
Experts talk of the “ambiguous loss” suffered by those who have no idea what has happened to their loved ones. It is a loss without closure or understanding, which leaves the person searching for answers, complicates and delays the grieving process, and can often result in unresolved grief.
As the anniversary of the plane’s disappearance approached, journalists focused on the anguish being suffered by the relatives of the passengers and crew.
The news agency Agence France Presse told three stories:
- Chinese businessman Li Hua suffered a stroke and has considered suicide, and his wife has been hospitalised with heart trouble, all since their daughter went missing on flight MH370.
- Amirtham, a retired Malaysian clinic worker, suffers fainting spells and a lack of sleep and appetite over the disappearance of her only son Puspanathan.
- Li Jiuying is tormented by the loss of her big brother, Li Guohai, and the burden of lying to their elderly mother, telling her that Li Guohai was not on the flight. The mother believes Li Guohai is tied up with a business dispute.
The AFP report quotes K.S. Narendran (pictured left), a business consultant in Chennai, India, whose wife Chandrika Sharma was on board MH370. Narendran said that families were in “a black hole”, crushed by their loss, but unable to start grieving and healing until the plane’s fate was clear.
The report said Narendran’s diabetes had worsened and he was now suffering from neck and arm problems.
On March 3, CNN ran an article in the form of a conversation between Narendran and his missing wife that was written in January this year. “The stronger I tried to be the more brittle I became,” Naredran wrote. “I was angry with the abrupt rupture to an otherwise uneventful existence. I was agitated that there were no satisfactory answers. Most of all, I realized how much I missed you being around. I even missed the sparring, the banter, the annoyances.”
Chandrika Sharma was one of five Indians on the flight. Two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese, 38 were from Malaysia, and the others were from 13 different countries.
Sharing his thoughts with reporter Moni Basu, Narendran said of the anniversary of the plane’s disappearance: “In the end what is a date? Tell me, does it make a difference in a cricket match if you score 99 or 100? To me, day 364 has as much significance as day 365. It’s just a marker. It doesn’t make a difference in my life the previous day or the next day or any other day.
“But I do understand a year has passed. It’s been a long time but it doesn’t feel that way. The events, the turning points, the feelings are pretty vivid. They simply haven’t dissolved.”
1) “Burst Frequency Offset” (BFO): Inmarsat experts considered the velocity of the aircraft relative to the satellite. Depending on this relative movement, the frequency received and transmitted will differ from its normal value in much the same way that the sound of a passing car changes as it approaches and passes by. This is called the Doppler effect.
The experts analysed the difference between the signal frequency that the ground station expects to receive and the one that is actually measured. This difference is the result of the Doppler effect and is known as the Burst Frequency Offset (BFO).
The BFO changes depending on the location of the aircraft on an arc of possible positions, its direction of travel, and its speed.
2) A waypoint is a reference point in physical space used for purposes of navigation.
The photo of the missing plane at the top of this article was taken in 2011.
Article updated at 21h on March 8. (The interim report released on March 8 gives precise details about the activation of the search and rescue operation four hours after MH370 went missing.)