Malaysia

Five years on, there are more questions than answers about the disappearance of MH370

K.S. Narendran with Jacquita Gonzales and her granddaughter, Alessandra Faith.

Five years ago today (Friday) Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished from radar and the next of kin of the 239 people on board entered a nightmare that is still continuing.

While some debris has been found that experts say is from the missing plane, neither MH370 nor its voice and data recorders have been located.

There is currently no official search ongoing, the International Civil Aviation Organisation investigation team has produced its full report, and the Malaysian government says it will not authorise another search without having new “credible leads”.

Relatives of those on board the missing plane want the Malaysian government to take a more proactive role and not just wait for more “credible evidence” to emerge.

“You can’t be sitting down and waiting for something to fall on your lap,” Jacquita Gonzales, whose husband Patrick Gomes was an in-flight supervisor on MH370, said at the five-year remembrance event held in Kuala Lumpur last Sunday (March 3).

The families’ consistent message is that “MH370 is not history; it’s the future for aviation safety”.

More than thirty pieces of debris have now been examined and three of them have been confirmed to be from MH370. Five pieces were handed over to Malaysia’s Transport Minister, Anthony Loke Siew Fook, in November last year and the investigating team concluded that one of them – a piece of floor panelling from a from a passenger cabin – was “likely” to be from MH370.

The team concluded that the other four pieces handed in in November were “not identifiable”.

Grace Subathirai Nathan hands a piece of debris (floor panelling) over to Malaysia’s transport minister.

Since March 8, 2014, the families of the MH370 passengers and crew have been on an emotional rollercoaster, with brief moments of hope interspersing lengthy periods during which they received no new information at all.

Chinese next of kin were outraged when they discovered that the investigation team’s report had not been translated into Chinese. This is now being remedied.

On Monday, the representative of the Chinese next of kin, Jiang Hui, had a meeting with Anthony Loke and the chief inspector of the Malaysian Ministry of Transport’s Air Accident Investigation Bureau, Yahaya B. Abdul Rahman, and said afterwards that a Chinese version of the report will be produced and more Malaysian government personnel will be sent to China to answer relatives’ questions.

On Sunday, Jiang Hui launched a new website that has been set up by Chinese next of kin. It will, Jiang Hui says, serve to promote the search for MH370 and the investigation into its disappearance, and bring together information, and it will be a platform on which Chinese next of kin can communicate with the outside world.

‘No cure, no fee’ searches

One of Ocean Infinity’s Autonomous Underwater Vehicles.

The American seabed exploration company Ocean Infinity, which spent just over three months searching for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, ended its mission in June last year.

The previous Australian-led underwater search was suspended on January 17, 2017, after an area spanning 120,000 square kilometres was scoured.

During its operation, Ocean Infinity searched and collected data from more than 112,000 square kilometres. The initial target had been 25,000 square kilometres.

At Sunday’s remembrance event, Anthony Loke said that, if Ocean Infinity came back with a fresh proposal, the Malaysian government was ready to enter discussions with them, but a new search would not begin if there were no new “credible leads”.

He said that funds could not be set aside if a proposal had not yet been made, but added that if Ocean Infinity could convince the government that its new technology could now be more efficient, the government was “more than willing” to restart the search.

Grace Subathirai Nathan, whose mother Anne Daisy was on board MH370, said the next of kin were imploring the Malaysian government to set funds aside to encourage “no cure, no fee” searches.

The government could, the next of kin suggest, set aside the US$70 million pledged last year as a possible payment to Ocean Infinity. The payment would have been US$70 million if MH370 was found outside of the 25,000-square-kilometre priority zone, and less if it was found within the zone.

The CEO of Ocean Infinity, Oliver Plunkett, communicating via a video from the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, spoke on Sunday about “the massive sense of disappointment” felt at Ocean Infinity in June when it ended its mission without finding MH370.

“We haven’t given up hope,” Plunkett said. “We haven’t stopped thinking about it. It is absolutely our intention, if we can, to return to the search.”

Plunkett says that, over time, Ocean Infinity has really proven its technology, and now has a far stronger operation than 12 months ago.

In an article by Steve Creedy published yesterday on airlineratings.com, Plunkett is quoted as saying that, by September this year, Ocean Infinity will have three ships, each of which will have five Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, two surface vehicles, a deep water winch, a deepwater crane, and two deepwater Remote Operated Vehicles. This, Plunkett said, meant there was potential not just to find MH370, but to retrieve the black boxes.

There is no guarantee that the plane’s cockpit and flight data recorders will be found even if the wreckage is located or whether the experts will be able to extract data from them, Creedy writes.

“One hope is the extreme depth and the lack of oxygen may help preserve the devices but no one can say how they may have fared after five years.”

The area that has been searched in the southern Indian Ocean was chosen on the basis of an analysis of satellite pings – or handshakes – from MH370 that placed the crash site close to a 7th arc that was determined by the British company Inmarsat.

There are investigators who doubt the validity of the Inmarsat data and believe that MH370 never reached the southern Indian Ocean. Others continue to have faith in the data, but question the deductions that have been made.

The area covered in the Australian-led search in the southern Indian Ocean.

The investigation team’s ‘full report’

A 1,423-page full report was published by Malaysian International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Annex 13 Safety Investigation Team for MH370 on July 2 last year, but it was inconclusive.

The report was made up of a main document totalling 495 pages and six separate appendices.

The lead investigator, Kok Soo Chon, said the team was “unable to determine the real cause for the disappearance of MH370”.

Several experts, and representatives of the next of kin of those on board MH370, have said that the report is incomplete.

In an article on his website, Victor Iannello from the MH370 Independent Group of investigators writes that the report “raises more questions than it answers”.

He says that it provides more details about the radar data, but adds that Malaysia is still failing to provide the raw military data that would allow an independent review.

“After all this time, we still can’t be sure what radar data is available as MH370 passed over the Malacca Strait.”

Iannello adds: “We also can’t be sure when the unidentified radar targets captured over the Malay peninsula were first recognised as MH370.”

According to the safety report, on the day of the disappearance of MH370, the military radar system recognised the “blip” that appeared west after the left turn over waypoint IGARI as MH370.

The report says the Malaysian military did not pursue the aircraft to intercept it as it was designated as “friendly” and was not considered to pose any threat to national airspace security, integrity, and sovereignty.

Iannello writes: “In light of the claim that the military was fully aware of the path of MH370, it is not explained why the initial Search and Rescue operations were coordinated in the South China Sea to the east of Malaysia, and proceeded for some number of days before they were moved west of Malaysia to the Indian Ocean.”

In their report, the investigators say they were told that the altitude and speed extracted from the military data were subjected to inherent error. “The only useful information obtained from the military radar was the latitude and longitude position of the aircraft as this data is reasonably accurate” the report states.

Iannello writes: “How the military radar data can be so far out of calibration is unexplained.”

He also says it is unexplained whether or not a systematic review of the cell phone numbers of all passengers and crew was ever performed.

The family support group Voice370 has also called for the release of raw military data.

Iannello said last July that new drift analysis by MH370 Independent Group member Richard Godfrey suggested that MH370 might have crashed further north on the 7th arc than previously thought.

Godfrey concluded that the recovered aircraft debris from the beaches of East Africa could have originated from potential impact sites as far north as 20.5°S latitude.

“He is recommending that a new subsea search cover the part of the 7th arc between 25°S and 20°S latitudes,” Iannello wrote.

Debris

The investigation team’s report states that that items of debris possibly from MH370 have been found as far north as the eastern coast of Tanzania and as far south as the eastern coast of South Africa.

It says that this is “in addition to several islands and island nations off the east coast of the African continent”.

Of these items of debris, the flaperon, a part of the right outboard flap, and a section of the left outboard flap have been confirmed to be from MH370, the report states.

The flaperon found on Reunion island in July 2015, which the French authorities say is from MH370.

At the time the report was released, 27 significant pieces of debris had been recovered and examined.  In addition to the three pieces confirmed to be from MH370, seven pieces, including some cabin interior items, have been determined to be “almost certainly” from the plane.

The report says eight pieces of debris are “highly likely” to be from MH370 and one piece is “likely” to be from the plane. Eight pieces of debris were not identifiable.

Twenty-six pieces of debris are with the Malaysian authorities, but the flaperon found on Reunion island is still with the French judicial authority.

Two pieces of debris were on display at Sunday’s remembrance event. One was a wing flap found on Pemba Island, Tanzania, by fishermen in June 2016 and the other was the trailing edge section of an outboard flap found by two tourists on Ilôt Bernache in Mauritius, also in 2016.

American amateur investigator Blaine Alan Gibson, who has found numerous pieces of plane debris, says that the flap found in Tanzania is the most important piece of MH370 debris found to date.

“The reason it is so significant is that it is absolutely confirmed to be from 9M-MRO, which is the aircraft of Malaysia 370. It’s confirmed by matching serial numbers and by the manufacture date.”

The second reason the piece is so significant, Gibson says, is that experts have determined that it was in the retracted position. “It was not deployed as it would be for a landing.”

The smaller piece of debris on display on Sunday is one of the three pieces that have been confirmed to be from MH370 because of matching serial numbers.

Gibson says all of the debris that has been found is consistent with a high-speed impact that shattered the plane.

Blaine Gibson in front of the wing flap found in Tanzania.

Procedural failures

The ICAO team’s full report about MH370 points to procedural failures by Air Traffic Control (ATC) in Malaysia and Vietnam.

Kuala Lumpur ATC had been scheduled to hand over MH370 to Ho Chi Minh (HCM) ATC at 0122 Malaysian time, but did this earlier, at 0119:26 Malaysian time (1719:26 UTC).

The Malaysian air traffic controllers acted too fast, telling the pilots to contact HCM at 0119:26, Kok Soo Chon said at the launch of the report.

Neither KL ATC nor the pilots of MH370 informed HCM ATC of the early handover.

At 0119:30 Malaysian time(1719:30 UTC), MH370 acknowledged with “Good night Malaysian Three Seven Zero”. This was the last recorded radio transmission from the plane.

Radar recording showed that MH370 passed through waypoint IGARI at 0120:31 Malaysian time (1720:31 UTC).

The last radar capture was at 0121. “After 0121 the aircraft was lost,” Kok Soo Chon said.

HCM ATC didn’t call KL ATC until just after 0139. When a grace period of five minutes is deducted, there was a period of 12 minutes during which no ATC was monitoring the plane, Kok Soo Chon (pictured left) said.

The investigation team’s report states that Vietnam Air Traffic Management “only initiated an enquiry on the whereabouts of MH370 at 1739:03 UTC (0139:03 Malaysian time) after a lapse of 12 minutes”.

It also says that KL ACC controllers relied solely on information about the position of MH370 that was provided by the Malaysia Airlines flight operations despatch centre rather than checking with other ATC authorities.

“The air traffic controllers did not initiate, in a timely manner, the three standard emergency phases in accordance with the standard operating procedures,” it adds.

The report also says there is no evidence to suggest that the KL ACC controllers kept continuous watch on the radar display and no record to suggest that they took any action to alert the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s Joint Air Traffic Control Centre.

The report also refers to the expiry of the battery on the Underwater Locating Beacon (ULB) of the flight data recorder, which was revealed in the first interim report into the disappearance of MH370, released in March 2015.

According to maintenance records, the battery on the beacon attached to the flight data recorder expired in December 2012.

Theories abound

There are numerous theories about the fate of MH370 – some reasonable and well thought out and others highly fantastical.

Hijacking cannot be ruled out and there have been suggestions that MH370 could have been shot down, intentionally or by mistake. There are still those who believe that its fate is linked to Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean that is owned by the British and is home to a major US military base.

The former director of the French airline Proteus, Marc Dugain 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.

There are theories that the jet crashed in the Cambodian jungle and Indian electrical engineer S. Dwarakanathan believes that it is in the rainforest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The relatives of MH370’s chief pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, have had to suffer endless unsupported allegations that Zaharie ditched the plane and was responsible for the deaths of those on board.

Photo by Chew Seng Cheong. Remembrance day event, March 3, 2019.

Blaine Gibson points out that the fact that the wing flap found in Tanzania was in a retracted position goes against the theory that there was a controlled intact ditching, a “pilot murder–suicide”.

It is astounding, Gibson says, that the controlled ditching theory is still being espoused, and that it is still being argued that the plane was intact under water.

“This piece proves that that did not happen. The other debris found by me and other private citizens include many shattered pieces of the interior cabin, so people who claim that the interior cabin, or the plane, or the fuselage are intact under water, that is also false.”

The ICAO investigating team said in its report that it was not of the opinion that Zaharie caused the plane’s disappearance.

“But at the same time we cannot deny the fact that there was an air turn back. We cannot deny the fact that, as we have analysed, the systems were manually turned off, with intent or otherwise,” Kok Soo Chon said.

Airline pilot Juanda Ismail, who holds licences from the civil aviation authorities of the United States, Australia, China and Indonesia, says he thinks that the MH370 pilots may have tried to land at Penang International Airport, but were unsuccessful.

“I am not sure if this was the case, but it is definitely something that needs to be considered,” Juanda said.

Juanda says evidence for a possible attempt to go to Penang is provided by the primary surveillance radar data from Kota Bharu and Butterworth.

In an article on his website, Juanda provides some course information and says that three definitive events suggest strongly that there was an attempt to land on runway four at Penang airport:

  • MH370 tracked directly over the waypoint ENDOR, which is in line with standard arrival procedure,
  • it also tracked directly over a point from which a course reversal procedure could be flown to enable it to line up with Penang airport’s runway four, and
  • it turned right on a track of 267◦ Magnetic to commence the required course reversal procedure.

From ENDOR, MH370 may have proceeded directly to the course reversal procedure point.

Juanda says that, after MH370’s apparent second turn, which took it to the northwest towards the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca, there were about 38 different course changes in a stretch of some 35 nautical miles as the plane headed up the Malacca Strait. That, Juanda says, would indicate that the plane was not on automatic pilot.

In an interview on Radio Espial, Juanda said that those track changes could mean that the plane was being controlled manually by someone flying it in an abrupt way with no real idea of where they were going, or that no one was in control of the aircraft.

It seemed as if the plane was just meandering up the Malacca Strait, Juanda said. If there was pilot incapacitation, he says, that was probably where it would have started to happen.

Juanda also spoke to Radio Espial’s Mick Rooney about the reports from locals in the Maldives who say they saw a low-flying jet fitting the description of MH370 on the day the plane disappeared.

If those were sightings of MH370, Juanda says, then the Inmarsat data has to be incorrect because it has the plane going in a completely different direction. It is, Juanda says, a case of one or the other. If the Inmarsat data was correct, then the sightings in the Maldives were not of MH370.

Juanda has done a fuel analysis based on the “holding configuration” for the aircraft that shows that the Maldives sightings at about 6.15 a.m. local time could have been of MH370. According to the Inmarsat data, the plane would already have run out of fuel before then, but, according to Juanda’s analysis, it could have flown on until about 6.25 a.m. Maldives time.

Juanda also talked about the significance of the Burst Frequency Offset (BFO) data at 18:40 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on the day MH370 disappeared.

It has been widely accepted that the BFO data at 18:40 UTC indicated a turn to the south, which would put MH370 on a course to the southern Indian Ocean, but this would be on the assumption that the aircraft maintained a constant altitude. Now, Juanda says, it appears that the aircraft was flown without the autopilot engaged from the time it turned back from waypoint IGARI.

“Without the autopilot engaged and altitude hold selected, I don’t believe we can assume the aircraft was at a constant altitude at 18:40 UTC,” Juanda explained in a post on Facebook.

Juanda says that the discovery of small pieces of debris that are believed to have come from the interior of the missing plane suggest that there was a high energy impact when the plane went down and that the plane was most likely not controlled at the time it crashed.

Pilot says oxygen bottle may have ruptured

There are experts who suggest that MH370 crashed after there was a rupture in one of the crews’ two oxygen bottles.

This is a theory put forward by a senior British Boeing 777 airline captain, who prefers not to be named.

The pilot explains that emergency oxygen for the crew is stored in the avionics bay, which is located immediately beneath the flight deck.

He says that, if an oxygen bottle ruptured, it could be propelled into the fuselage structure, would breach the hull, and would cause decompression of the aircraft.

He suggests that the transponder could have been disabled when hit by the valve end of a bottle, or the power to it severed as the bottles sit next to the power source. This, the pilot says, would cause the aircraft to disappear from radar. And any number of other pieces of equipment could be affected by such an explosion.

“With the aircraft’s decompression, the pilots would be incapacitated within sixty seconds because of hypoxia and the fact that the emergency crew oxygen supply was destroyed.

“With the flight crew now disabled and/or unconscious, no immediate descent would be initiated, no radio call would be made, and the passengers and crew would also soon succumb to hypoxia despite the drop-down oxygen in the cabin.”

The pilot says that MH370’s erratic flight path could be explained by wiring damage caused by an explosion that could disable the autopilot and autothrottle.

“It is entirely possible that, after a decompression, the ensuing drop in temperature in the avionics bay could interfere with the information received by Inmarsat, thereby corrupting the data that was critical to their 7th arc theory and invalidating the coordinates that were used in the search in the southern Indian Ocean.”

Australian aviation enthusiast Michael Gilbert has speculated that there was a windshield heater fire that was fueled by an oxygen leak in the plane’s cockpit and the one pilot he believes survived tried to reach Penang.

Funding for air emergencies

One of the people who gives weight to the suggestion that MH370 crashed because of a rupture in one of the crew’s oxygen bottles is Australian aviator and entrepreneur Dick Smith, who has called for travellers to pay a surcharge on airline tickets to raise funds for a fresh search for MH370.

K.S. Narendran, whose wife Chandrika was on board the plane, and who has written a book entitled Life After MH370, mooted the idea of a special contingency fund for air search and rescue, recovery, or other air travel emergencies back in 2015.

“What if the  three billion air passengers per year were to pay a dollar towards the emergency/contingency fund?” he wrote on Facebook.

There was perhaps a case for all countries that offer civilian air services to contribute to such a fund, Narendran said.

“Nationals do not travel to their international destinations only in their own national carriers. In most instances people exercise choice based on desired comfort, convenience, and costs,” he wrote.

The fruits of search, rescue, recovery and accident investigation do not accrue only to countries from which the accident-affected carriers originated, but to all, Narendran says. “In light of this, all countries have an obligation to contribute to air travel safety in all parts of the world.”

Third-party interference ‘cannot be ruled out’

The ICAO team’s report says there is no evidence to suggest that MH370 was flown by anyone other than the designated Malaysia Airlines pilots, but Kok Soo Chon said the team could not rule out the possibility that there was “unlawful interference” by a third party.

Talking about the plane’s diversion from its scheduled flight path, he said that, based on the military record, there was no evidence of a rapid change in altitude and speed that would indicate deliberate evasion of radar.

The report states: “Based on the team’s review of the military recorded radar display and printout, the aircraft’s flight path could not be determined, and there is no evidence of rapid altitude and/or speed changes to indicate that MH370 was evading radar.

“Without further evidence, the reason for the transponder information from the aircraft ceasing could not be determined.”

It has been determined, the report says, “that only the transponder signal of MH370 ceased from the ATC controller display whilst displays from other aircraft were still available”.

A relative’s last hope

Paul and Danica Weeks on their wedding day.

Danica Weeks from Australia, whose husband Paul was a passenger on MH370, recently met Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. She said she felt that he was her last hope.

It was the first time that Mahathir had met one of the relatives of those on board the missing plane.

The prime minister expressed his sympathy with the next of kin and said he understood the extreme distress they must feel not knowing what had happened to their loved ones.

He said that the government would continue to search for MH370, but it remains to be seen whether Mahathir’s concern will translate into positive, concrete action.

Five years on, the mystery of what happened to MH370 is still as perplexing as ever.

K.S. Narendran said on Sunday: “For all of us, knowing what happened to MH370 remains the key to unlock a part of our lives, our energies.

“Our prayers have remained unchanged: find the plane, find the passengers, give us answers to what, why, and how, and if it comes to it, who. Give us the truth.”

Grace Subathirai Nathan wrote on Facebook a few hours ago: “I look at the time and I remember my last conversation with you. I remember the last message you sent me as you got to the airport in KL.

“I remember the police investigation video of you going through airport security, shown to me at some point in the last five years. My heart just suddenly breaks all over again and the pain and horror just hits me like a pile of bricks.

“I miss you and I love you, and I am still trying to find you. Five years on. Five years gone. The search must go on.”

Grace Subathirai Nathan speaking at Sunday’s remembrance day event. She is pictured in front of a photo of herself and her sister Azelia with their mother Anne Daisy.