MH370 — Seven years later

The disappearance of the Boeing 777— has the mystery been solved?

Seven years have passed since a Boeing 777–200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines, using the call sign MH370, disappeared without trace. The fate of that hitherto routine flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China on the night of March 8, 2014, has become the most enduring puzzle in aviation history since pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean between Lae, New Guinea and Hawaii in 1937.

The missing aircraft 9M-MRO photographed at Melbourne airport in 2005. Courtesy David Thiedeman

The mystery of MH370 soon gripped the world, with one 24-hour news channel devoting almost an entire year to the story — with no resolution, of course. The event has been covered in these columns twice, once in 2019 and again last year on the sixth anniversary of the flight.

A consensus of sorts emerges

As years went by, the western media seemed to agree on a theory that was tenuous, but almost impossible to refute. The accepted version was that the aircraft made an unplanned turn westward (to the left — see picture below) after crossing the ATC (air traffic control) boundary between Malaysia and Vietnam. This was the last point at which civil ATC radar saw the aircraft’s unique transponder (identifier) code on their secondary radar screens. (Secondary radar shows air traffic controllers the airplane’s position, call sign, speed, etc; far more useful than seeing a mere ‘blip’ — which is what older-generation ‘primary’ radar screens displayed.)

Almost all modern civil ATC equipment is advanced secondary radar, so once MH370’s transponder stopped transmitting, the flight vanished off ATC screens. Military units still use primary radar, but no definite data has been made public that shows the 777’s progress after position ‘IGARI’, an intangible but clearly identifiable ‘waypoint’ on the Airway W766. IGARI is the boundary between airspace controlled by the Singapore/WSJC Flight information Region (FIR) and Vietnam’s southern FIR/VVTS.

Position IGARI depicted on the type of map used by pilots

The world’s media began accepting a theory that MH370 made an abrupt left turn between IGARI and BITOD (the next waypoint on the airway) before proceeding in a southwesterly direction, overflying both Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s ADIZ (Air Defence Interception Zone). Normally an unidentified aircraft entering an ADIZ is subject to interception by fighters. Neither country’s air force (two of the largest in the region) challenged the intruder or raised an alarm — let alone scrambled fighters that night. MH370 seemed to be a ‘stealth’ aircraft that flew right through sensitive airspace totally undetected.

The supposed instigator of this diversion was deemed to be, wholly without evidence, the Captain of the flight, Zaharie Ahmad Shah (‘Ari’ to his friends). Ari, like many pilots, was a rather boring middle-aged person of unremarkable habits. While this writer did not know him personally, aviation is a small world. With one degree of separation I have several friends who knew Capt. Shah well. They all vouch for his honesty, integrity and love for aviation. Yet the media united in painting him as a dastardly mastermind and mass murderer. Egged on by the SKY News network people with no expertise in the matter, such as Australia’s then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, pointed accusing fingers at Capt. Shah. A former colleague of this writer, Captain Byron Bailey, who at the time wrote a column for the Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper, labelled Captain Shah on national television as the perpetrator, without a shred of evidence to support his case.

One of the alleged flight paths reconstructed using satellite data

That soon became the accepted version of events. Most people, including this writer, accepted this hypothesis as being plausible, at least partially. A possibly deranged pilot turns off all communication devices and makes an abrupt turn toward the west. Followed by a second turn to the northwest heading towards the Indian subcontinent; or possibly the southwest — the latter which would take the B777 towards the empty vastness of the Indian Ocean. Since no further radar positions were reported, it was concluded that the perpetrator ultimately ditched the aircraft in the middle of the sea, never to be found again.

Where is the evidence?

The alleged ‘new route’ of the aircraft was never a well-supported theory. Several individual primary radar positions have been put forward as being those of MH370, but because they carry no identification data, any aircraft in the region that night could have generated them. That part of the world is busy throughout the night, with flights criss-crossing Asia en route to the Gulf (Middle East) and Australia. No continuous radar plot has been shown tracking MH370 from position IGARI westbound, something that most ADIZ radars should have recorded.

The purported track was cobbled together by a group of engineers and computer geeks at Inmarsat, a satellite telecommunications provider. It was claimed that a device onboard the aircraft exchanged electronic ‘handshakes’ with one particular satellite while on its way to the Indian Ocean. Under normal circumstances this data does not contain position information. But, the ‘experts’ claimed, due to a malfunction on this particular satellite they were able to glean position information for this flight only. It was not possible to verify the claim as only that satellite was experiencing the glitch that made it possible. What a coincidence!

The areas searched in the southern Indian Ocean

A huge and expensive effort to find the wreckage on the sea floor of the Indian Ocean was conducted, to no avail. Not a trace of the wreck or the locator beacons fitted to the flight data recorders (the so-called ‘black boxes’) were ever detected. However, a few years later some items of debris washed up on the shores of Mauritius, Madagascar and Tanzania, at the western edge of the Indian Ocean crash zone. While they appeared to be parts from a Boeing 777, none have, to date, been positively matched with components of 9M-MRO, the missing aircraft.

Along comes a sceptic

Florence de Changy is a reporter who has been covering the Asian region in many Francophone publications including Paris Match, and for Radio France. In a recently published book titled The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370, she looks deep into the accepted theories and puts forward a new hypothesis as to what really happened.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read any further unless you wish to know what Ms de Changy says in her book.

Debunking accepted theories

The strongest part of The Disappearing Act is the detailed and well-researched manner in which the author disproves many accepted theories concerning the disappearance of MH370.

For instance, the media presented a picture of Captain Shah as a lonely and bitter divorcé, estranged from his family. This has been exposed as a blatant lie. Rumors of a ‘second family’, based on a Facebook post by a niece, have also been disproved.

The satellite ‘tracking’ by a couple of individuals at Inmarsat, on which the entire Indian Ocean crash site was based, is also shown as being impossible to validate. The many assumptions made in the calculations, added to the malfunctioning satellite that provided the data, means that they cannot be replicated for another aircraft whose position is known. Without replication, the results can only be, at best, speculative.

The many ‘pings’ (radio signals) supposedly detected by ships searching the Indian ocean crash site are shown to be of the wrong radio frequency. They are more likely to be electronic collars attached to fishing gear, sharks, whales, or even turtles, than from locator beacons fitted to the ‘black boxes’ of the missing aircraft.

The need for the Boeing 777’s turn to the southwest has also been exposed as defying logic. Should the alleged perpetrator have wanted to disappear into open water, a simpler turn farther to the east would have meant that other than some islands in the Philippine archipelago, there would be no land between the aircraft and the Pacific Ocean. What better place to disappear than over (and in) the world’s largest body of water, where Earhart went missing nearly 77 years before?

So what did happen to the aircraft?

That, sadly, is the weakest portion of the book. In the absence of any convincing theory or fully identified wreckage, Ms de Changy concludes that an attempt to intercept MH370 and force it to land, in order to secure supposedly sensitive contraband being smuggled to China, went badly wrong and the aircraft was destroyed soon after its last known position.

The perpetrator of the interception is said to be the US military, which certainly has the capability to blanket the B777 electronically and prevent any communication or position signals from escaping. Ms de Changy speculates that an attempt to force the aircraft to land at a Thai Air Force base at Rayong U-Tapao (near the resort town of Pattaya) was botched and that the B777 was destroyed over the sea near the Gulf of Thailand.

Position IGARI and the direction of Rayong U-Tapao airfield

The author concludes that a vast conspiracy, involving the military and governments of at least half a dozen countries, came together to ensure that the public’s attention was diverted while the actual crash location off the coast of Vietnam was concealed, and all wreckage removed.

That a ‘cover up’ of this magnitude is possible in today’s world, is hard to believe. This writer is a confirmed skeptic of conspiracy theories, as all it would take is one individual with a camera-phone taking a few photographs and posting them on the Internet, to expose the whole affair. Ms de Changy alleges that the bulk of the ‘clean up’ was done by the US Navy under strict military discipline. But the governments of Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand would have to be involved at both local and top-government levels. The Gulf of Thailand is also home to thousands of fishing boats. That no news of a crash and resulting debris leaked out, is hard to believe. However, in the absence of any other credible explanation, this is as plausible a theory as the alternative ‘deranged pilot’ one it replaces.

March 8, 2021 marks the seventh anniversary of MH370’s disappearance. Under common law, missing persons are deemed to have legally expired seven years after they were last seen. So, in coming weeks, insurance companies around the world will have to pay out huge sums to next of kin of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members who were on MH370. No doubt there will be considerable fall-out, as legal counter-suits will seek to claim some of these payouts for aggrieved parties, deepening the anguish of the families left behind.

I love airplanes. As an airline captain I flew many including the A380 and Boeing 777. But wish I’d had the opportunity to fly some of these old propliners.