What Happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

Feb 21, 2019 Michelle Clarke
Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was a scheduled flight on March 8th 2014, that was scheduled to leave from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia at 12:35 am and arrived in Beijing China at 6:30 am , but flight 370 never arrived in Beijing and now over four years later since the plane mysteriously vanished we still don't have an answer for what happened to it or where exactly it currently is. The disappearance of the plane mid-flight and the lack of any conclusive answers has guaranteed that flight 370 remains the greatest mystery in aviation history. This article is my attempt to give you as much information as possible and to help explain how exactly a plane can go missing in the 21st century. 

First the basics. Flight 370 was one of two daily flights operated by Malaysia Airlines that made flights between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. Flight 370 was scheduled to leave Kuala Lumpur on the 8th of March at 12:35 am. and arrived in Beijing at 6:30 am  for a total flight time of five hours and 34 minutes. The aircraft that was being flown was a Boeing triple7 passenger jet that was carrying enough fuel to remain in the air for 7 hours and 31 minutes,  more than enough time to make a diversion in the event of an emergency.

The plane itself was 11 years old and had no previous incidents of mechanical issues reported. The flight was operated by a crew of 12 people all of whom were Malaysian citizens and two pilots. The pilot in command was 53 year olds a hair Ahmed Shah a longtime employee who had joined Malaysia Airlines back in 1981 and had over 18,000 hours of flight time experience. His copilot was 27 year old Fariq Abdul Hameed who had been with a company for seven years and had over 2700 hours of flight experience as well . In addition to these two pilots and 10 other crew members, there was a total of 227 passengers that were on board; 153 Chinese citizens, 50 Malaysians, seven Indonesians,  6 Australians, 5 Indians,  four French,  three Americans,  two Canadians,  two Iranians , two New Zealanders,  two Ukrainians, one Dutch, one Russian and one Taiwanese.

Departing slightly later than scheduled, flight 370 took off from the runway at Kuala Lumpur at 12:42 am  and was soon cleared by air traffic control to climb to 18,000 feet in altitude. Subsequent voice analysis has confirmed that the first officer aboard the flight verbally communicated with air-traffic control before the flight took off and that the captain was in communication with them just after taking off. The flight at first continue normally but at 1 of 6 am the plane sent its last automated position report and final transmission. The last verbal contact that anybody had with somebody on the flight occurred just moments later at 1:19 am, just 37 minutes after the plane had taken off.  At that time Kuala Lumpur radar made a call to the cockpit of the flight telling them to switch over to Viet Nam's airspace saying  "Malaysian 370 row contact Ho Chi Minh 1 2 0 decimal 9 good night" This was answered by the head pilot captain Shaw when he simply said "good night Malaysian 370". 

The plane was now flying over the gulf of Thailand on its scheduled path, but this is when things start to get weird.  Just three minutes after making their final verbal contact with the outside world.   At 1:21 am  flight 370 suddenly vanished from the radar screens at both Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City. This means that the transponder on board the flight was no longer working at this time.  There were very few clouds in the area with no storms,  which means it's extremely likely that the transponder was manually turned off by somebody instead.  Military radar was still capable of tracking the flight after this point though, and here's what happened next.

For whatever reason the plane began to make a turn right,  but then took a sudden left turn to a southwesterly direction. Flight 370 then flew in this direction directly back over the Malay Peninsula, fluctuating a few thousand feet at altitude.  At 1:52 am  flight 370 was detected to cross just south of Penang Island and then took another turn to fly across the Strait of Malacca.  The last location of MH370 known with certainty was over the Indian Ocean at 2:22 am, which was near the limits of the Malaysian military radar. Despite being lost to radar, the flight was still making satellite communications. Based on an analysis of the satellite data it has been concluded that MH370 then took another bizarre turn to the south  and continue to fly this way for over five hours.

The whole time this part of the trip was happening the aircraft satellite communication system was responding to hourly  status requests from the satellite company  IMMARSAT. A phone call was made to the cockpit again at 2:39 am, which rang,  but was  unanswered by anybody inside. Over four hours later at 7:13 am, another phone call was made to the cockpit but this time too,  it just rang and went unanswered. By 7:24 am, while still airborne somewhere over the Indian Ocean,  the flight was one hour late past its scheduled arrival in Beijing. The Malaysian government announced that they had lost contact with the plane and that search and rescue operations had been mobilized,  but unknown to them at the time,  MH370 was still flying. The last piece of data received from the plane happened at 8:19 am. It was a logon request sent by the flight to the company IMMARSAT, at which would have only happened for a few reasons namely : either a power or a software failure.

The plane at this point had been flying for seven hours and 38 minutes,  and since it was only scheduled to fly for five and a half hours,  it's most likely that the plane had run out of fuel. By this point IMMARSAT sent  another status request to the plane at 9:15 am , but this time it finally went unanswered. Based on that fact,  it's most likely that the plane crashed in the Indian Ocean sometime between 8:19 am and 9:15am,  but it's still not known exactly where this happened. When the final communication was made with a flight at 8:19 am, it's been calculated that the flight was somewhere along this black curve (see image below).

Taking that into consideration and the  general  flight path the plane was taking,  analysis from the satellite data,  it's most likely that the plane went down somewhere around the white circle above,  several thousand kilometers west of Australia.

So to recap,  the plane departed from Kuala Lumpur on the way to Beijing and started flying on the normal flight path, but then made a sudden right turn over the Gulf of Thailand then a sudden left turn and flew across the Malay Peninsula. Once past the island of Penang,  the plane took another turn to fly into the Indian Ocean and then took another turn south at flew for over five hours straight across that ocean before it probably finally ran out of fuel and crashed somewhere west of Australia in the middle of nowhere.

The search for the plane and the 239 people on board began almost immediately. The hunt initially began in Southeast Asia,  as it was believed early on that the plane probably went down around there. But as more information came out about the actual path a flight took the search was changed to the Indian Ocean. Between March 18th and April 28th 19 ships and 345 sorties by military aircraft searched an area over 4.6 million square kilometers in size, larger than the entire country of India and found nothing. A sonar search of the seafloor was also conducted about 1,800 kilometers west of Perth Australia but also didn't find anything. Nothing at all was actually discovered until over a year after the plane vanished when in July 2015,  a piece of wreckage was discovered washed up on the beach of Reunion, 4,000 kilometers west of the main search area. The piece was a wing flapper of a plane and was confirmed to have come from MH370. Its analysis showed that the landing flaps of the plane were not extended when it crashed,  which kind of terrifyingly supports the theory that when the plane crashed in the ocean, it did so by entering into a vertical dive. A few more pieces of wreckage were later discovered across the coast of East Africa.

By January 17th, 2017,  nearly three years after the planes disappearance, the official search for the flight was suspended after discovering no other evidence for the planes location other than those small amounts of debris.  The search was conducted mostly by the governments of Malaysia , Australia and China,  and it had become the most expensive search in aviation history,  costing 155 million dollars. The official report from the search claimed to have narrowed down the location of the crash to a twenty five thousand square kilometer area in the ocean west of Australia; an area roughly the same size as Macedonia. In January 2018,  though a private US company called ocean infinity announced that it would resume the search for the plane in that twenty five thousand square kilometer area , but as of March 2018, after searching a thirty three thousand square kilometer area around it, they too have found nothing.

After over four years of searching and coming up with few answers, the speculation as to what happened to MH370 has been rampant. We're pretty certain about the path of flight took in the general area of where it crashed,  but we're no closer to understanding why it happened.  The first major theory that got a lot of early attention was a possible hijacking from passengers on board. There were two men aboard the flight who are Iranian citizens with stolen passports which raised a considerable amount of suspicion. They had only purchased one-way tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and only entered Malaysia a week before the flight depart, but Interpol  later concluded that both men were simply asylum seekers fleeing Iran and not terrorists.  Neither of them had the relevant skills to have flown a plane and performed hijacking and both American and Malaysian officials extensively reviewed the backgrounds of every single passenger named in the flight manifest and came up with no potential leads.  There was speculation that the plane could have been hijacked and taken to a remote island, but no group to date has ever claimed responsibility for that,  and following the discovery of the wreckage off the coast of Africa, this theory has become extremely unlikely. A passenger hijacking doesn't seem likely to have taken place, but what about a crew hijacking?  There was considerable suspicion raised around captain Sahara Ahmed Shah, but no conclusive evidence has been found that links him to "causing"  the incident either. The Malaysian government conducted 170 interviews of friends and family of the crew that were on board,  but once again nothing significant or sinister was discovered through these.  If the pilots caused the incident,  it's unclear what exactly would have been their motive for doing so. Police searched the homes of both pilots and seized the financial records of all 12 crew members. The FBI even analyze data from captain Shaw's home flight simulator,  but none of this discovered anything sinister.  But remember when the flight took that turn out over the Indian Ocean and flew for five hours until it ran out of fuel , American intelligence officers believe the most likely explanation for that was that someone in the cockpit of flight 370 manually reprogrammed the aircraft's autopilot before it took that turn.  Do you also remember back when flight 370 first vanished off the radar screens because a transponder stopped working?,  it's also possible that somebody inside the cockpit manually turned the transponder off.

Despite its seeming likely that somebody in the crew was responsible, there's still zero conclusive evidence to prove that that's what actually happened. There's a few other weird theories out there about what went on, ranging from the plane getting sucked into a black hole,  to getting abducted by aliens. There's also a theory that the plane was hijacked remotely by cyber criminals that gained access to the flight controls, but Boeing  has denounced this idea as impossible.  The final theory I haven't discussed yet is the fire  hypoxia theory.  It's possible that a fire may have started somewhere on board the plane while on route to Beijing.  The theory goes that the pilot decided to turn back and wanted to attempt an emergency landing at the nearest suitable airport in northern Malaysia.  Based on an analysis of the timing of the satellite communications data, a power interruption mid flight would be the most likely reason for it. It's unknown what may have caused a power interruption though since it's been ruled out that it was an engine issue.  It could have been somebody inside manually switching off the aircraft's electrical system but who knows why that would have happened. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau concluded that an unresponsive crew resulting from a potential cabin decompression event was the most likely explanation : for when the plane flew for five hours straight across the Indian Ocean. If this happened then everybody on board the flight would have been unconscious for hours up to when it crashed in the ocean.  This is all pretty speculative though because

a. it's unknown what might have caused the decompression event happening

b it's unknown what might have caused the power interruption happening and

C even if a fire did happen on board in the crew attempted an emergency landing in Malaysia, why did they continue to fly over Malaysia and then change course out over the Indian Ocean?

No matter what Theory you might think is most likely, every single one has some holes in it to make any of them seem doubtful , and if it's frustrating for you not knowing any answers , imagine how frustrating it must be for the families and friends of the people that were onboard. MH370 remains Aviation's greatest unsolved mystery and as long as we haven't discovered the plane we probably won't get any answers or closure. It's possible that somebody in the world knows exactly what happened to MH370 and it's also possible that literally nobody in the world knows what happened. But whichever of those two possibilities is real, they're both equally unsettling.

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