For the last ten days, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has entranced the world like few media stories do, and none have been more affected than the loved ones of the passengers. I’ve refrained from commenting publicly on this story until now since we didn’t know very many hard facts until a few days ago.
Over these last few days investigators have uncovered important information, and the media has developed some theories as to where the plane could be. Here’s what we know so far:
- Early on Saturday, March 8 flight MH 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing.
- Less than an hour after takeoff, over the Gulf of Thailand and during the handoff from Malaysia air traffic control to Vietnam air traffic control, the plane’s transponder was switched off, making it much harder to track, especially by civilian air traffic systems.
- The plane’s other main communications system, ACARS, also was turned off, apparently before the aircraft’s last contact with the ground.
- The pilots signed off to Malaysian ATC with a seemingly normal, “All right, good night”, even though ACARS had already been disabled.
- The plane was turned to the left, well off its course to Beijing and back across the Malaysian peninsula into the Indian Ocean.
- The last recorded radar contact with MH 370 was at 2:40 am Malaysia time over the Straight of Malacca, approximately between Penang, Malaysia and Phuket, Thailand.
- The plane’s engines continued to send basic pings or “handshakes” to a satellite for another six to seven hours, indicating the aircraft was flown well beyond its last known position.
Based on this data and more, there are two main theories as to where the aircraft went: the flight followed either a northern arc and landed or crashed in Asia or it followed a southern arc and crashed in the Indian Ocean after it ran out of fuel.
Based on the facts we know today, there are problems with both theories. I think the balance of evidence suggests – just – that this aircraft was landed somewhere in South or Central Asia for a purpose we have yet to learn.
Theory: The flight followed a northern arc into Central Asia and either landed or crashed
It’s clear that this hijacking was a premeditated event. The persons in command of the aircraft at the time of its diversion picked a perfect spot (the ATC handoff from Malaysia to Vietnam) to change the plane’s course. We also know the plane flew for six to seven hours after it was diverted, which would put it near the end of its fuel reserves. Why go to all the trouble of hijacking one of the largest airliners in the world only to fly it deep into the Indian Ocean and have it crash as its fuel ran out? Likewise, if this were a case of pilot suicide (as with EgyptAir 990) why not simply dive the plane into the sea or ground immediately?
The main objection to this theory is that the plane would have been picked up on military radars in countries it would have flown over en route to where it landed. This is a U.S.-centric assumption and conceit; many developing countries don’t have a sophisticated track and intercept system like the United States does. MH 370 flew over Malaysia and southern Thailand without being challenged. Why couldn’t it do the same over Bangladesh, Nepal or Western China?
The Indians and Pakistanis are particularly affronted by the suggestion that the plane could have slipped past their radars. These denials are necessary face-saving protests in a region with a tense border and history of wars. After all, if a civilian 777 can get past Indian military radar, what’s to stop Pakistani military jets from flying over Delhi? An Indian military official from the Nicobar Islands admitted that forces on the Indian-controlled islands often turn their radar off to save money.
The larger flaw with this theory is the question of what happened to the passengers. If they’ve been held for the last ten days, why haven’t there been any ransom demands or negotiations? And if the plane was taken for use in a terror attack, why not conduct that attack immediately, when the world thinks the plane has crashed and isn’t a threat?
Obviously there are still far more questions than answers at this point. With regard to the fate of MH 370, the only definitive thing I can say is that hijacking this plane, only to then fly it deep over the Indian Ocean to crash, just doesn’t make sense.
What do you think happened to MH 370?
UPDATE March 24: The Malaysian government has announced that debris from MH370 has been spotted by satellite in the southern Indian Ocean, which means the plane most likely went down without any survivors. We may never understand what was behind this senseless loss of life, but for now all we can do is pray for the loved ones of those who were aboard.