Jon Swaine and Tom McCarthy in New York
20 March 2014
In the absence of hard facts, speculation about what really happened on Flight 370 has been rampant. But do any of these explanations hold up? We take a look at the competing theories
It’s 12 days since the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. A 250-ton Boeing 777-200 has, for the time being, vanished. Twenty-six countries have joined a search of 2.24m square nautical miles from central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean. Satellite images have given investigators cause to believe there may be debris in the southern Indian Ocean, but so far, a search of the area has found nothing.
In the absence of confirmed sightings, speculation has been rife about what happened to the plane and the 239 people on board, with competing theories feverishly discussed by professionals and amateurs. Some sound more plausible than others. Here, we assess the relative merits of the more prominent explanations for the plane’s disappearance.
1. What happened?
It was an accident …
Those remaining hopeful that no one deliberately wronged MH370 and its passengers were boosted by a much-shared online post by Christopher Goodfellow, a former pilot. Something malfunctioned, Goodfellow surmised, and a sharp turn to the left made in the flight’s first hour was, in fact, a swift attempted re-route by the pilot to the nearest runway on which he could land: a 13,000-foot strip on Pulau Langkawi, the largest island in an archipelago of 104 in the Andaman Sea.
The left turn is the key here. Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a very experienced senior captain with 18,000 hours of flight time. We old pilots were drilled to know what is the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise. Airports behind us, airports abeam us, and airports ahead of us. They’re always in our head. Always. If something happens, you don’t want to be thinking about what are you going to do – you already know what you are going to do. When I saw that left turn with a direct heading, I instinctively knew he was heading for an airport. He was taking a direct route to Palau Langkawi, a 13,000-foot airstrip with an approach over water and no obstacles.
Goodfellow theorised that “there was most likely a fire or electrical fire” He suggested that the plane’s transponder and ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) were shut off as casualties of a scramble to tackle this blaze. “In the case of fire the first response is to pull all the main [electrical] busses and restore circuits one by one until you have isolated the bad one,” he said, adding that the crew could have been incapacitated by smoke before they could land, leaving the plane to fly on for six or more hours on autopilot, before eventually crashing.
Goodfellow’s theory was comfortingly simple, but suffered from a major shortcoming. Malaysian authorities have said the plane appeared to have been re-routed a second time after that first sharp turn. A third tracking device, on the plane’s engines, continued sending intermittent electronic “pings” via satellite to the ground for another six hours, indicating that the plane continued to fly.
The final “ping” put its last known position on one of two arcs. Investigators said that the electronic “pings” put its last known position on one of two arcs of a circle emanating out from the satellite that detected it. One arc is to the north, over China, and the other is to the south over the Indian ocean, off the western coast of Australia. Goodfellow’s assumed autopilot could not have taken the plane to either destination.
“If the pings are accurate, the plane turned again,” said Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and an author on aviation. “Autopilot only does what it tells you to.” He went on: “It is also very unlikely that the plane could have carried on flying for hours after it had indeed suffered a fire or other mechanical catastrophe”. Smith concluded: “It is not a strong theory.”
It was no accident …
After it was discovered that the two separate communications systems were turned off, investigators said that they had concluded that MH370 was the victim of a hijacking or sabotage. “These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said. Little other solid evidence has been produced or cited by the Malaysians for why this conclusion was reached. Still, two theories followed.
a) The pilot or co-pilot were responsible
Attention has focused on captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27. A transponder and ACARS can only be shut down by someone who knows what he or she is doing. “The flight crew, by virtue of the controls and the circuit-breaker panels in the cockpit, have the ability to remove power from them,” said Dennis Schmitz, a veteran engineer and executive in the aviation communications industry. Malaysian ministers also initially said, at a 15 March news conference, that one of the communicating systems was switched off before the last known verbal message from the cockpit – “all right, good night”.
But authorities later backtracked on this, admitting they did not know exactly when the systems were shut down. The pilots did not show signs of radical activity, although Shah’s support for a Malaysian opposition leader jailed the day before the flight has been much analysed. The pair also did not request to fly together, and appear to have been upstanding professionals, according to several profiles. Adding to the confusion, US officials briefed reporters in recent days that the plane was first manually rerouted before that final verbal sign-off – again indicating foul play in the cockpit from someone with technical knowhow. “That is a red flag,” said Smith.
Shah kept a flight simulator at home. Malaysian officials said on Wednesday that some files had been removed from it several weeks ago. “The experts are looking at what are the logs, what has been cleared,” Malaysian police inspector general Tan Sri Khalid Bin Abu Bakar told reporters, at a news conference. Hishammuddin Hussein, the defence and acting transport minister, appeared to confirm reports that the FBI had been asked to help analyse the files, which he said were being looked at with “local and international expertise”.
b) The plane was hijacked by someone else
If the plane was deliberately sabotaged, and the pilots were not responsible, someone else on the plane must have been. Malaysian military radar “appeared to show that the missing airliner climbed to 45,000 feet” before descending steeply, the New York Times reported, which could potentially indicate a struggle in the cockpit. However, this report also prompted speculation that a knowledgeable flyer had deliberately flown that high in an attempt to deprive some on board of oxygen, thus knocking them out or even killing them.
There remains a lack of consensus among experts about the precise technicalities of ACARS. A full disabling of the system requires circuits to be broken not only in the cockpit “but also in the electronics bay”, according to Smith. This bay is found beneath the flight deck, indicating that someone involved was at one point outside the cockpit.
The passengers included two men flying on stolen passports and at least one from China’s restive Xinjiang region, whose separatist militants were blamed for a knife attack at a railway station that killed 29 people earlier this month.
Yet the men travelling on stolen passports appear to have been seeking asylum in Europe and had no clear connection to terrorism or militant groups. Background checks on passengers and crew have turned up no likely suspects, and China has announced that it has unearthed nothing untoward in the profiles of the two-thirds of passengers who were Chinese. Commandeering the plane, disabling its communications systems and flying it smoothly would require organisation and expertise that would seem difficult to hide.
However, no message claiming responsibility for taking the plane appears to have been left by any passenger, and no group has claimed responsibility for it. And – to state the obvious – nothing appears to have been done with it.
2. Where is the plane?
a) Landed to the north
The northern of the two arcs identified by investigators as the possible locations from where the plane sent its final “ping” sweeps from southern to north-western China, prompting speculation that MH370 might have flown over south Asia towards smaller central territories, where it could have landed. Some have even suggested it could have been parked, awaiting use in a future terrorist attack. But “there are hundreds of planes in airports and depots all over the world,” Smith pointed out. “Why take this one and force the whole world to look for you?”
Kazakhstan and Krgyzstan were quickly singled out as potential landing spots. Yet both governments stressed that they would have detected the plane, and did not. “Even if all on-board equipment is switched off, it is impossible to fly through in a silent mode,” Serik Mukhtybayev, deputy head of the Kazakh Civil Aviation Committee, said in a statement. “There are also military bodies monitoring the country’s air space.” Dair Tokobayev, vice-president of Kyrgyzstan’s main civilian airport, told Reuters: “This plane did not fly over Kyrgyzstan’s territory.”
And for the plane to have reached that arc several hours after losing contact with the ground, it would have probably have needed to avoid detection by several major militaries in the region. While most countries protect the locations of their radar sites, researchers estimate that China alone has about 30 long-range systems.
“They must have long-range radar out there,” said Ron Ruggeri, a veteran air-traffic controller and instructor at Vaughn College of aeronautics and technology. “If the plane did go that way, somebody would have seen it.” He went on: “Things are also a little on-edge in that part of the world. If they did not know who this plane was, I’d expect them to scramble jets to find out”.
b) The plane flew somewhere else
Dismissing the significance of the two possible arcs, some have speculated that sightings show the MH370 went on to fly elsewhere. Residents of some remote islands in the Maldives said they had spotted a “low-flying jumbo jet” on the morning the MH370 disappeared, according to Haveeru, a local news site. Their description seemed to match that of the missing jet.
However the Maldives government swiftly dismissed the suggestion. “Based on the monitoring up to date, no indication of flight MH370 has been observed on any military radars in the country,” said the Maldives National Defence Force in a statement, adding that airport radar had come up short, too.
Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox, suggested on Twitter that the plane might have been “effectively hidden, perhaps in northern Pakistan, like Bin Laden”. The Pakistani government has firmly rejected the notion and said the plane was not detected by its radars. Indian officials have also pushed back against speculation the plane flew over the country.
c) The plane flew to the south and probably crashed into the sea
Proponents of the second arc, which curves away gradually from the western coast of Australia, have MH370 heading south from its sharp left turn, over the Indian ocean. The lack of confirmed sightings by radar systems to the north, and the fact that no wreckage of the plane has been recovered in Asia, has boosted speculation that this is the more likely of the two directions. On Thursday, the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, told parliament in Canberra that satellite imagery had found two possible pieces of debris at a location 2,500km (1,500 miles) south-west of Perth. Detailed analysis of that imagery produced “new and credible information”, he said, although an initial aerial search turned up nothing.
After hitting the southern arc and flying on for a little longer, the plane could have descended into the two-mile-deep ocean and sunk, along with its two “black box” data recorders that will have collected information and audio from the cockpit. More than a third of the recorders’ 30-day batteries, which allow it to send a beacon-like signal to investigators, have now expired.
Experts stress that the south is likely to prove more fruitful. “I look for who would have the best intelligence,” said Dr Todd Curtis, a former airline safety analyst for Boeing. “The US has a view of what’s going on all over the world, and when the White House announced last week that it was despatching the seventh fleet to the Indian Ocean, it signalled to me that this was the most likely location. And since then, the Australians have taken the lead down there.”
Australia said on Thursday that it had halved the search area in the Indian Ocean – albeit to an area still covering 300,000 square kilometres – and moved it closer to Perth.
Reuters quoted a source close to the investigation on Wednesday as saying: “The working assumption is that it went south, and furthermore that it went to the southern end of that corridor.” Within hours, however, this had been challenged by the Malaysian defence and acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein. “They are both equally important,” he said of the two arcs. “But the southern corridor is much more challenging.”