In March 2014, one of the most mysterious disappearances in history took place, with many questions left unanswered regarding the fateful day, several years on.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was en route to China from Malaysia when it disappeared without trace, with all 239 people on board presumed dead.
Many years on, it is still unclear exactly what happened on the flight, despite the most expensive search in aviation history being conducted.
This article reviews this case. There is a reader’s poll at the end of the article, which we hope you partake in. We will all be able to see what the consensus is among our readers as to what happened.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) left Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, bound for Beijing Capital International Airport, China, on 8th March 2014.
The pilot was Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who was at the controls of a Boeing 777-200ER, with the particular aircraft used having a proven track record of safety and stability. He was joined by co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid.
There were 227 passengers onboard, with 12 crew members. Most of those on the plane were Chinese nationals, with others from nations like France, Australia and the United States. In total, 15 nations had citizens on board.
The plane departed at 00:35 local time, with an expected flight time of 5 hours and 34 minutes. At first, nothing seemed to be amiss with MH370, however this would soon change.
Less than an hour after take-off, the aircraft made its final voice contact, when, as expected, the flight was crossing over the South China Sea. The pilot signed off by saying “goodnight” to air controllers. At this point, the plane was following its expected course.
Yet just three minutes later at 01:22, the aircraft disappeared from air traffic controllers’ radar screens, and would never appear again. This left traffic controllers in a state of confusion.
Traffic controllers tried in vain to try and communicate with MH370 after it failed to report upon making it into Vietnamese airspace. A neighbouring aircraft also attempted to make contact, but was unable to do so.
The aircraft did however remain on military radars for a further hour. These radars tracked the plane as it unexpectedly and inexplicably deviated westwards from its planned flight path.
MH370 turned back towards Malaysia and flew the full width of the country before sharply travelling 230 miles away from land. At this point, at 02:22, the aircraft disappeared from military radars. No one ever heard from MH370 again.
The aircraft was declared lost within hours, and an initial search and recovery effort was launched. It was presumed that the aircraft had crashed into the sea somewhere. The initial search failed to find anything.
Investigators were confused for many reasons. There had been no distress signal from the plane, no indication of bad weather or any technical problems.
One of the most concerning findings made by investigators concerns communication problems. Aircraft maintenance experts have stated that a plane’s communication system can only be disabled manually. This suggested that the communications had been turned off by someone on board.
In fact, the final official report into MH370’s disappearance concluded that the communications system were most likely turned off manually – though the report did caution that it couldn’t determine if this had been done “with intent or otherwise”.
If the communications were manually turned off, then this would explain how the aircraft disappeared from both air traffic control and military radars.
Pings received hours after the disappearance suggested that the plane had flew on for several hours after contact had been lost. But given that it had travelled for many hours, investigators were left with the reality that the aircraft could be anywhere within an enormous radius.
A multinational search effort was organised following the disappearance. This search would go on to become the most expensive search in aviation history. The search mainly focused on the vast South Indian Ocean.
Over 46,000 square miles of sea floor was searched – representing a colossal amount, with even more satellite imagery searched. However, nothing was found. Searches went on for almost two years.
Then, in January 2017, the official search for MH370 was called off. While this angered relatives of those on board, it was reasoned that the chances of finding the plane were near-impossible.
The investigation into the MH370 disappearance was plagued by a lack of concrete evidence. The only indication of what could have happened comes from the discovery of marine debris in July 2015.
At this time, around 20 pieces aircraft debris washed up on the shore of the small East-African island of Réunion – approximately 2,500 miles to the west of the original underwater search area.
18 of these items were identified as being highly likely to have belonged to MH370. The most noticeable of which was a flaperon, with investigators confirming it came from MH370.
Scientists concluded that after studying the debris, that the crash area of MH370 would actually have been northeast of the original 46,000 square miles underwater search zone – a bitter pill to swallow for investigators.
Further debris that was believed to have come from MH370 were found on the coast of the East-African nation of Mozambique. It is believed that this debris was from the right wing.
Another East-African nation – this time Tanzania – also witnessed some aircraft debris come ashore. Investigators concluded that a flap from one of MH370’s wings had been found.
Meanwhile, in January 2018 – a year after the official search had been suspended – a private US Marine company Ocean Infinity conducted a six-month search based on a study which had calculated an approximate crash site.
In just five months, 43,000 square miles had been searched through. But again, nothing was found. Ocean Infinity have pledged to search again in the future.
Due to the incredible lack of evidence, there is no official explanation as to what happened. When releasing their final report on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – the Malaysian Ministry of Transport stated that they were “unable to determine the real cause” of its disappearance.
The tragedy did however result in legislation changes for aircrafts. This included increased battery life in underwater beacons, heightening standards for aircraft position reporting when over the open ocean, and other safety improvements.
Hopefully, these improvements will mean that future catastrophes can be avoided. As a morsel of consolation – this disappearance may end up saving many others in the future.
Due to the high-profile nature of the case, as well as its mysterious circumstances – there have been a range of theories put forward to explain the disappearance.
We take a look at the evidence for each theory below:
Theory One: Unresponsive crew, ending in fuel exhaustion and crash
One of the most common theories is that the crew, and possibly passengers too, were rendered unconscious during the flight. An oxygen deficiency would’ve likely caused this.
It is possible that the flight would remain on autopilot, and eventually crashing after running out of fuel. Pings suggest that the plane remained airborne for several hours after disappearing from radars – supporting this theory.
However, this doesn’t explain why communications were seemingly manually turned off – if this is what happened. Unless this was done in error. Moreover, oxygen deficiencies are rare. While most believe this theory to be potentially accurate, there are some holes.
Theory Two: Aircraft failure and crash
It is possible that a system failure led to the actions we saw. If an unforeseen issue did appear, it is possible that Captain Shah made unexpected course changes in an attempt to make an emergency landing.
An emergency situation is normally the only reason for a change of course. If there was an emergency, such as mechanical failure, the likelihood is that the plane would have ended up in the ocean crashing.
However, this theory does not explain why the communications were seemingly manually turned off – if this is what truthfully happened. Moreover, the fact that no distress signal was sent makes this theory unlikely. But this theory does remain popular.
Theory Three: Pilot suicide
The pilot suicide theory didn’t initially gain much attention, but as time has gone on, many have argued that this is the most likely cause of the disappearance of MH370.
It is known that Captain Shah grew up on the island of Penang, Malaysia. It has been suggested that when changing course unexpectedly, that the aircraft was positioned at an angle that allowed the pilot a picturesque view of Penang – which could be seen as a farewell.
The inexplicable change in course may have been done to evade possible searches. Then there is the issue of communications potentially being manually turned off (though this isn’t known for certain). If it did happen, it must be asked why this would be done – but if the pilot wanted to crash the plane, this would make sense.
Shah had also reportedly had some relationship problems at the time. It is possible that he would have injured his co-pilot, and crashed the plane, taking his life and all those on board.
Moreover, Captain Shah’s at home flight simulator was analysed in the months following the disappearance. While no conclusions of this were ever made by investigators, some sources stated that the simulator featured flights that closely matched the projected flight taken by MH370.
However, Shah’s family have strenuously denied this. They stated that Shah was devoted to both his family and his job. It is very difficult to discount this theory, as a lot of evidence points to this.
Theory Four: Co-pilot involvement
Similar to the above, it is possible that the co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid ended up at the controls, and eventually crashed the plane intentionally.
He may have overpowered Captain Shah or locked him out of the cabin. A similar event was seen in the tragic Germanwings Flight 9525 in 2017, when the co-pilot locked the pilot out of the cockpit, before crashing intentionally.
This theory could also explain why communications were manually turned off, if this belief is accurate. It would also explain why the plane was flown off course – if Hamid wanted to crash the plane in a deserted location.
However, Hamid was known to love his job, and was actually in his final training flight. He was also engaged to his girlfriend. Unless something behind the scenes went wrong, Hamid seemed to be leading a successful and happy life – throwing this theory into doubt.
Theory Five: Fire from Cargo
Another interesting theory is that the plane’s cargo caught fire, resulting in the plane crashing into the sea. A mechanical fault may have caused the fire
Supporting this theory is the knowledge that the cargo contained Lithium-ion batteries – which are known to potentially be flammable. These batteries could’ve caught fire if they overheated, or if a puncture caused it to spark.
There were also people who claimed to have witnessed an aircraft on fire at the time of MH370’s disappearance. These included oil rig workers, fishermen and sailors. The veracity of these sightings were never proven.
There was also a precedent for Boeing 777’s to catch fire. For example, one such aircraft caught fire while parked at Cairo Airport in 2011, with the fault attributed to a hose used in the cockpit to provide oxygen in the case of decompression.
A fire would explain the course change – as the pilots may have tried to turn back to land. However, it is known through “pings” that the aircraft carried on flying for quite some time. This surely wouldn’t happen if the aircraft caught fire.
Theory Six: Passenger hijacking
While cockpits are near-inaccessible to passengers nowadays due to security improvements, it is not out of the question for a passenger hijacking to have taken place.
At first, investigators focused on two individuals that had travelled on the plane with stolen passports. This theory would support the course change and the belief that communications had been manually turned off.
There was the belief that the duo, or someone else, had hijacked the plane. This may have been for ransom purposes, or as an act of terrorism where they intended on crashing the plane.
But investigators eventually found that the two men in question were asylum seekers. Investigators checked the background of all those on board, with nothing suspicious found. While this theory was discounted, it is plausible.
Theory Seven: They are all alive but stranded on an island
A theory that has been proposed is that the plane successfully landed on an island somewhere – akin to the TV show LOST. If this theory is correct, then all 239 people on board could feasibly have survived.
The only weight to this theory is that no bodies, nor much of the plane – has ever been found. Other than this, there is very little evidence to suggest this is feasible.
There seems to be no reason why the pilots would dramatically change the course of the aircraft. Also, in this day and age, the chances of them not being found are remote.
Theory Eight: MH370 was shot down
The final theory is that MH370 was shot down. The only rationale for this is that aircrafts have been shot down in the past – and MH370 may have been shot down in a catastrophic error of judgement.
However, if the aircraft was shot down, it would split into millions of pieces, requiring a cover-up of enormous proportion. It would be incredibly difficult for this to happen without detection.
Some suggested that the United States were to blame. It is known that there is a US military base on the atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. MH370 would’ve been heading in this direction.
Officers at the base may have believed MH370 posed a significant threat, and decided to shoot it down. However, the US would be seen as just protecting themselves – meaning there would be no need for a mass cover-up to ensue.
Others have argued that China or Russia may be responsible in some way. But there has been very little evidence to suggest that a shoot-down did take place. But in the absence of any proof, this theory is a possibility.
With the above theories in mind, we now invite you to cast your vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.
Whatever happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was a tragedy. It is highly likely that all 239 people on board would have regrettably died. We can only hope that their death was quick, and happened without their knowledge.
The disappearance of Flight 370 continues to baffle many – given the distinct and unusual lack of evidence. As the years go by, answers look less and less likely to come by. While one day the truth may be found, until then – several questions remain unanswered.
Title Image Credit: “Pray for my compatriots on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.” by byeangel is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.