What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane?
Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say.
1. The Disappearance
At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator. He flew it frequently, and often posted to online forums about his hobby. In the cockpit, Fariq would have been deferential to him, but Zaharie was not known for being overbearing.
At that moment, the airplane should have been landing in Beijing. The search for it was initially concentrated in the South China Sea, between Malaysia and Vietnam. It was an international effort by 34 ships and 28 aircraft from seven different countries. But MH370 was nowhere near there. Within a matter of days, primary-radar records salvaged from air-traffic-control computers, and partially corroborated by secret Malaysian air-force data, revealed that as soon as MH370 disappeared from secondary radar, it turned sharply to the southwest, flew back across the Malay Peninsula, and banked around the island of Penang. From there it flew northwest up the Strait of Malacca and out across the Andaman Sea, where it faded beyond radar range into obscurity. That part of the flight took more than an hour to accomplish and suggested that this was not a standard case of a hijacking. Nor was it like an accident or pilot-suicide scenario that anyone had encountered before. From the start, MH370 was leading investigators in unexplored directions.
2. The Beachcomber
On the evening of the airplane’s disappearance, a middle-aged American man named Blaine Gibson was sitting in his late mother’s house in Carmel, California, sorting through her affairs in preparation for selling the property. He heard the news about MH370 on CNN.
Technical analysis indicates with near certainty that the airplane turned south. We know this from Inmarsat’s second logged value—the burst-frequency offset. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to this value as the “Doppler value,” because it includes, most crucially, a measure of radio-frequency Doppler shifts associated with high-speed movement in relation to satellite position, and is a natural part of satellite communications for airplanes in flight. Doppler shifts have to be predicted and compensated for by airborne systems in order for satellite communications to function. But the compensation is not quite perfect, because satellites—particularly as they age—do not transmit signals in precisely the way airplanes have been programmed to expect. Their orbits may tilt slightly. They are also affected by temperature. These imperfections leave telltale traces. Although Doppler-shift logs had never been used before to determine the location of an airplane, Inmarsat technicians in London were able to discern a significant distortion suggesting a turn to the south at 2:40 a.m. The turn point was a bit north and west of Sumatra, the northernmost island of Indonesia. It has been assumed, at some analytical risk, that the airplane then flew straight and level for a very long while in the general direction of Antarctica, which lay beyond its range.
3. The Mother Lode
The Indian Ocean washes against tens of thousands of miles of coastline, depending on how many islands you include in your count. When Blaine Gibson started looking for debris, he did not have a plan. He flew to Myanmar because he had been intending to go there anyway, then went to the coast and asked some villagers where flotsam tended to drift ashore. They directed him to several beaches, and a fisherman took him there by boat. He found some debris, but nothing that came from an airplane. He advised the villagers to be on the lookout, left his contact number, and moved on. Similarly, he visited the Maldives and the islands of Rodrigues and Mauritius without finding debris of interest. Then came July 29, 2015. About 16 months after the airplane went missing, a municipal beach-cleanup crew on the French island of Réunion came upon a torn piece of airfoil about six feet long that seemed to have just washed ashore. The foreman of the crew, a man named Johnny Bègue, realized that it might have come from an airplane, but he had no idea which one. He briefly considered making it into a memorial—setting it on an adjacent lawn and planting some flowers around it—but instead he called a local radio station with the news. A team of gendarmes showed up and took the piece away. It was quickly determined to be a part of a Boeing 777, a control surface called a flaperon that is attached to the trailing edge of the wings. Subsequent examination of serial numbers showed that it had come from MH370.
After flying northwest above the Strait of Malacca, the airplane makes what investigators call the “final major turn” and heads south. The turn and the new course are later reconstructed from satellite data.C—April 2014:
The surface search is abandoned and a deep-ocean search gets under way. Analysis of satellite data had located MH370’s final electronic “handshake” along an arc.D—July 2015:
The first piece of debris from MH370—a flaperon—is discovered on the island of Réunion. Other confirmed or likely pieces have been found on widely dispersed beaches in the western Indian Ocean (locations in red).
4. The Conspiracies
Three official investigations were launched in the wake of MH370’s disappearance. The first was the largest, most rigorous, and most expensive: the technically advanced Australian underwater-search effort, which was focused on locating the main debris in order to retrieve the airplane’s flight-data and cockpit voice recorders. It involved calculations of aircraft performance, the parsing of radar and satellite records, studies of oceanic drift, doses of statistical analysis, and the physical examination of the East African flotsam—much of which came from Blaine Gibson. It required heavy maritime operations in some of the world’s roughest seas. Assisting the effort was a collection of volunteer engineers and scientists who found one another on the internet, called themselves the Independent Group, and collaborated so effectively that the Australians took their work into account and ended up formally thanking them for their insights. In the annals of accident investigation, this had never happened before. Nonetheless, after more than three years and about $160 million, the Australian investigation closed without success. It was picked up in 2018 by an American company called Ocean Infinity, under contract with the Malaysian government on a “no-find, no-fee” basis. This search used advanced underwater-surveillance vehicles and covered a new section of the seventh arc, a section deemed most likely by the Independent Group to bring results. After a few months, it too ended in failure.
Such a conclusion invites continued speculation, even if it is unwarranted. The satellite data provide the best evidence of the airplane’s flight path, and are hard to argue with, but people have to have trust in numbers to accept the story they tell. All sorts of theorists have made claims, amplified by social media, that ignore the satellite data, and in some cases also the radar tracks, the aircraft systems, the air-traffic-control record, the physics of flight, and the basic contours of planetary geography. For example, a British woman who blogs under the name of Saucy Sailoress and does Tarot readings for hire was vagabonding around southern Asia with her husband and dogs in an oceangoing sailboat. She says that on the night MH370 disappeared they were in the Andaman Sea, and she spotted what looked like a cruise missile coming at her. The missile morphed into a low-flying airplane with a well-lit cockpit, bathed in a strange orange glow and trailing smoke. As it flew by she concluded that it was on a suicide mission against a Chinese naval fleet farther out to sea. She did not yet know about the disappearance of MH370, but when, a few days later, she learned of it she drew what was to her the obvious connection. Implausible, perhaps, but she gained an audience.
5. The Possibilities
In truth, a lot can now be known with certainty about the fate of MH370. First, the disappearance was an intentional act. It is inconceivable that the known flight path, accompanied by radio and electronic silence, was caused by any combination of system failure and human error. Computer glitch, control-system collapse, squall lines, ice, lightning strike, bird strike, meteorite, volcanic ash, mechanical failure, sensor failure, instrument failure, radio failure, electrical failure, fire, smoke, explosive decompression, cargo explosion, pilot confusion, medical emergency, bomb, war, or act of God—none of these can explain the flight path.
Second, despite theories to the contrary, control of the plane was not seized remotely from within the electrical-equipment bay, a space under the forward galley. Pages could be spent explaining why. Control was seized from within the cockpit. This happened in the 20-minute period from 1:01 a.m., when the airplane leveled at 35,000 feet, to 1:21 a.m., when it disappeared from secondary radar. During that same period, the airplane’s automatic condition-reporting system transmitted its regular 30-minute update via satellite to the airline’s maintenance department. It reported fuel level, altitude, speed, and geographic position, and indicated no anomalies. Its transmission meant that the airplane’s satellite-communication system was functioning at that moment.
An intentional depressurization would have been an obvious way—and probably the only way—to subdue a potentially unruly cabin in an airplane that was going to remain in flight for hours to come. In the cabin, the effect would have gone unnoticed but for the sudden appearance of the drop-down oxygen masks and perhaps the cabin crew’s use of the few portable units of similar design. None of those cabin masks was intended for more than about 15 minutes of use during emergency descents to altitudes below 13,000 feet; they would have been of no value at all cruising at 40,000 feet. The cabin occupants would have become incapacitated within a couple of minutes, lost consciousness, and gently died without any choking or gasping for air. The scene would have been dimly lit by the emergency lights, with the dead belted into their seats, their faces nestled in the worthless oxygen masks dangling on tubes from the ceiling.
6. The Captain
This leaves us with a different sort of event, a hijacking from within where no forced entry is required—by a pilot who runs amok. Reasonable people may resist the idea that a pilot would murder hundreds of innocent passengers as the collateral price of killing himself. The definitive response is that this has happened before. In 1997, a captain working for a Singaporean airline called SilkAir is believed to have disabled the black boxes of a Boeing 737 and to have plunged the airplane at supersonic speeds into a river.* In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 was deliberately crashed into the sea by its co-pilot off the coast of Long Island, resulting in the loss of everyone on board. In 2013, just months before MH370 disappeared, the captain of LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 flew his Embraer E190 twin jet from cruising altitude into the ground, killing all 27 passengers and all six crew members. The most recent case is the Germanwings Airbus that was deliberately crashed into the French Alps on March 24, 2015, also causing the loss of everyone on board. Its co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had waited for the pilot to use the bathroom and then locked him out. Lubitz had a record of depression and—as investigations later discovered—had made a study of MH370’s disappearance, one year earlier.
In the case of MH370, it is difficult to see the co-pilot as the perpetrator. He was young and optimistic, and reportedly planning to get married. He had no history of any sort of trouble, dissent, or doubts. He was not a German signing on to a life in a declining industry of budget airlines, low salaries, and even lower prestige. He was flying a glorious Boeing 777 in a country where the national airline and its pilots are still considered a pretty big deal.
It is the captain, Zaharie, who raises concerns. The first warning is his portrayal in the official reports as someone beyond reproach—a good pilot and placid family man who liked to play with a flight simulator. This is the image promoted by Zaharie’s family, but it is contradicted by multiple indications of trouble that too obviously have been brushed over.
The police discovered aspects of Zaharie’s life that should have caused them to dig more deeply. The formal conclusions they drew were inadequate. The official account, referring to Zaharie as the PIC, or pilot in command, had this to say:
The PIC’s ability to handle stress at work was reported to be good. There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability. There were no significant changes in his lifestyle, interpersonal conflict, or family stresses … There were no behavioral signs of social isolation, change of habits or interest … On studying the PIC’s behavioral pattern on the CCTV [at the airport] on the day of the flight and prior 3 flights, there were no significant behavioral changes observed. On all the CCTV recordings the appearance was similar, i.e. well-groomed and attired. The gait, posture, facial expressions and mannerisms were his normal characteristics.
This was either irrelevant or at odds with what was knowable about Zaharie. The truth, as I discovered after speaking in Kuala Lumpur with people who knew him or knew about him, is that Zaharie was often lonely and sad. His wife had moved out, and was living in the family’s second house. By his own admission to friends, he spent a lot of time pacing empty rooms waiting for the days between flights to go by. He was also a romantic. He is known to have established a wistful relationship with a married woman and her three children, one of whom was disabled, and to have obsessed over two young internet models, whom he encountered on social media, and for whom he left Facebook comments that apparently did not elicit responses. Some were shyly sexual. He mentioned in one comment, for example, that one of the girls, who was wearing a robe in a posted photo, looked like she had just emerged from a shower. Zaharie seems to have become somewhat disconnected from his earlier, well-established life. He was in touch with his children, but they were grown and gone. The detachment and solitude that can accompany the use of social media—and Zaharie used social media a lot—probably did not help. There is a strong suspicion among investigators in the aviation and intelligence communities that he was clinically depressed.
If Malaysia were a country where, in official circles, the truth was welcome, then the police portrait of Zaharie as a healthy and happy man would carry some weight. But Malaysia is not such a country, and the official omission of evidence to the contrary only adds to all the other evidence that Zaharie was a troubled man.
Forensic examinations of Zaharie’s simulator by the FBI revealed that he experimented with a flight profile roughly matching that of MH370—a flight north around Indonesia followed by a long run to the south, ending in fuel exhaustion over the Indian Ocean. Malaysian investigators dismissed this flight profile as merely one of several hundred that the simulator had recorded. That is true, as far as it goes, which is not far enough. Victor Iannello, an engineer and entrepreneur in Roanoke, Virginia, who has become another prominent member of the Independent Group and has done extensive analysis of the simulated flight, underscores what the Malaysian investigators ignored. Of all the profiles extracted from the simulator, the one that matched MH370’s path was the only one that Zaharie did not run as a continuous flight—in other words, taking off on the simulator and letting the flight play out, hour after hour, until it reached the destination airport. Instead he advanced the flight manually in multiple stages, repeatedly jumping the flight forward and subtracting the fuel as necessary until it was gone. Iannello believes that Zaharie was responsible for the diversion. Given that there was nothing technical that Zaharie could have learned by rehearsing the act on a gamelike Microsoft consumer product, Iannello suspects that the purpose of the simulator flight may have been to leave a bread-crumb trail to say goodbye. Referring to the flight profile that MH370 would follow, Iannello said of Zaharie, “It’s as if he was simulating a simulation.” Without a note of explanation, Zaharie’s reasoning is impossible to know. But the simulator flight cannot easily be dismissed as a random coincidence.
In Kuala Lumpur, I met with one of Zaharie’s lifelong friends, a fellow 777 captain whose name I have omitted because of possible repercussions for him. He too believed that Zaharie was guilty, a conclusion he had come to reluctantly. He described the mystery as a pyramid that is broad at the base and one man wide at the top, meaning that the inquiry might have begun with many possible explanations but ended up with a single one. He said, “It doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to reconcile with the man I knew. But it’s the necessary conclusion.” I asked about the need Zaharie would have had to somehow deal with his cockpit companion, First Officer Fariq Hamid. He replied, “That’s easy. Zaharie was an examiner. All he had to say was ‘Go check something in the cabin,’ and the guy would have been gone.” I asked about a motive. He had no idea. He said, “Zaharie’s marriage was bad. In the past he slept with some of the flight attendants. And so what? We all do. You’re flying all over the world with these beautiful girls in the back. But his wife knew.” He agreed that this was hardly a reason to go berserk, but thought Zaharie’s emotional state might have been a factor.
Does the absence of all of this from the official report— Zaharie’s travails; the peculiar nature of the flight profile on the simulator—not to mention the technical inadequacies of the report itself, constitute a cover-up? At this point, we cannot say. We know some of what the investigators knew but chose not to reveal. There is likely more that they discovered and that we do not yet know.
Which brings us back to the demise of MH370. It is easy to imagine Zaharie toward the end, strapped into an ultra-comfortable seat in the cockpit, inhabiting his cocoon in the glow of familiar instruments, knowing that there could be no return from what he had done, and feeling no need to hurry. He would long since have repressurized the airplane and warmed it to the right degree. There was the hum of the living machine, the beautiful abstractions on the flatscreen displays, the carefully considered backlighting of all the switches and circuit breakers. There was the gentle whoosh of the air rushing by. The cockpit is the deepest, most protective, most private sort of home. Around 7 a.m., the sun rose over the eastern horizon, to the airplane’s left. A few minutes later it lit the ocean far below. Had Zaharie already died in flight? He could at some point have depressurized the airplane again and brought his life to an end. This is disputed and far from certain. Indeed, there is some suspicion, from fuel-exhaustion simulations that investigators have run, that the airplane, if simply left alone, would not have dived quite as radically as the satellite data suggest that it did—a suspicion, in other words, that someone was at the controls at the end, actively helping to crash the airplane. Either way, somewhere along the seventh arc, after the engines failed from lack of fuel, the airplane entered a vicious spiral dive with descent rates that ultimately may have exceeded 15,000 feet a minute. We know from that descent rate, as well as from Blaine Gibson’s shattered debris, that the airplane disintegrated into confetti when it hit the water.
7. The Truth
For now the official investigations have petered out. The Australians have done what they could. The Chinese want to move on and are censoring any news that might inflame the passions of the families. The French are off in France, rehashing the satellite data. The Malaysians just wish the whole subject would go away. I attended an event in the administrative city of Putrajaya last fall, where Grace Nathan and Gibson stood in front of the cameras with the transport minister, Anthony Loke. The minister formally accepted five new pieces of debris collected over the summer. He was miserable to the point of being angry. He barely spoke, and took no questions from the press. Nathan was seething at the minister’s attitude. That night, over dinner, she insisted that the government should not be allowed to walk away so easily. She said, “They didn’t follow protocol. They didn’t follow procedure. I think it’s appalling. More could have been done. As a result of the inaction of the air force—of all of the parties involved in the first hour who didn’t follow protocol—we are stuck like this now. Every one of them breached protocol one time, multiple times. Every single person who had some form of responsibility at the time did not do what he was supposed to do. To varying degrees of severity. Maybe in isolation some might not seem so bad, but when you look at it as a whole, every one of them contributed 100 percent to the fact that the airplane has not been found.”
And every one of them was a government employee. Nathan had hopes that Ocean Infinity, which had recently found a missing Argentine submarine, would return to the search, again on a no-find, no-fee basis. The company had suggested the possibility of doing so earlier that week. But the government of Malaysia would have to sign the contract. Because of the political culture, Nathan worried that it might not—as so far has proved true.
If the wreckage is ever found, it will lay to rest all the theories that depend on ignoring the satellite data or the fact that the airplane flew an intricate path after its initial turn away from Beijing and then remained aloft for six more hours. No, it did not catch on fire yet stay in the air for all that time. No, it did not become a “ghost flight” able to navigate and switch its systems off and then back on. No, it was not shot down after long consideration by nefarious national powers who lingered on its tail before pulling the trigger. And no, it is not somewhere in the South China Sea, nor is it sitting intact in some camouflaged hangar in Central Asia. The one thing all of these explanations have in common is that they contradict the authentic information investigators do possess.
That aside, finding the wreckage and the two black boxes may accomplish little. The cockpit voice recorder is a self-erasing two-hour loop, and is likely to contain only the sounds of the final alarms going off, unless whoever was at the controls was still alive and in a mood to provide explanations for posterity. The other black box, the flight-data recorder, will provide information about the functioning of the airplane throughout the entire flight, but it will not reveal any relevant system failure, because no such failure can explain what occurred. At best it will answer some relatively unimportant questions, such as when exactly the airplane was depressurized and how long it remained so, or how exactly the satellite box was powered down and then powered back up. The denizens of the internet would be obsessed, but that is hardly an event to look forward to.
The important answers probably don’t lie in the ocean but on land, in Malaysia. That should be the focus moving forward. Unless they are as incompetent as the air force and air traffic control, the Malaysian police know more than they have dared to say. The riddle may not be deep. That is the frustration here. The answers may well lie close at hand, but they are more difficult to retrieve than any black box. If Blaine Gibson wants a real adventure, he might spend a year poking around Kuala Lumpur.
This article appears in the July 2019 print edition with the headline “‘Good Night. Malaysian Three-Seven-Zero.’”
* This article originally stated that SilkAir is an Indonesian airline.