Going Direct: Malaysia 370 Disappearance: Case Closed?

A Boeing 777 from Malaysia Airlines
A Boeing 777 from Malaysia Airlines. A Boeing 777 from Malaysia Airlines. y Laurent ERRERA from L'Union, France - Boeing 777-200ER Malaysia AL (MAS) 9M-MRO - MSN 28420/404, CC BY-SA 2.0

After Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370—a Boeing 777 headed from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China,—went missing on March 8, 2014, with 239 souls on board, the evidence that emerged quickly made the disappearance the biggest mystery since Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan disappeared on the second to last leg of their attempted circumnavigation of the globe on July 2, 1937.

For the past five years, we’ve seen the story of Flight MH 370 maintain its hold on the public, despite a months-long search of the seafloor of the Indian Ocean. This is even after the recovery of a number of pieces of debris from the missing 777 on Indian Ocean coastlines far to the west of the presumed flight path after it departed from its original mission and after all went quiet.

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Today we might have an answer. In fact, I believe that we do have an answer, though one that’s been hiding in plain sight nearly the entire time. In his Atlantic story published just this week, aviation writer and former airline pilot William Langewiesche lays out painstakingly the evidence for what happened to MH370. It’s a convincing argument, too. It is, in fact, precisely what I had said happened at the time, and exactly what I had been telling television audiences on cable news shows, including CNN, since shortly after the disappearance. The pilot did it.

I've thought that all along. Shortly after the disappearance when details were still emerging on a daily basis, I engaged in heated on-air debates on the subject, including one with a 777 captain who was certain the disappearance was a result of a mechanical issue, and he wouldn’t be persuaded by the evidence that would emerge over the next weeks that called that argument into question.

It started as a mystery most folks thought we'd solve in short order. The suspicions were that the plane had suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, or perhaps an explosion, that took it out of the sky, sending its wreckage into the South China Sea north of Malaysia.

But as the first details emerged, the original guesses were shown to be not just a little off but completely wrong. Not only was there no evidence that the plane had gone down after it stopped showing up on controllers’ radar and after it had ceased communicating, but we soon saw evidence that it had changed course, turning to the southwest. The automatic position reporting was turned off as the plane headed back over the main Malaysian island and then northwest, seemingly to avoid flying into Indonesian airspace, before turning to the south. Its last sighting on military radar was just north of Indonesia, where it seemed to be flying along at its normal cruise altitude and speed, just not anywhere near its planned route of flight. What could possibly have been happening?

There were two theories that soon emerged, neither of which was anything short of horrific. The first, that it was a series of cascading mechanical errors that incapacitated the plane’s occupants, including the pilots. The plane then flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. The second theory was that a rogue pilot intentionally diverted the fight on an unthinkably evil murder/suicide mission.

That latter is Langewiesche’s take on the matter, and he names the alleged murderer as captain of the flight, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53. Zaharie was a senior pilot at Malaysia, and evidence that he was likely the culprit was apparently withheld by the Malaysian government as part of a larger pattern of interference with an investigation that struggled without that vital information. I won’t recount Langewiesche’s argument blow by blow, because it’s a brilliantly formulated discussion of the subject that you should read in its entirety. You can find it here.

But in short, he details the history of the flight and subsequent investigation and spends time discussing the actions of the Malaysian government that consistently pointed the probe away from the theory that the captain was to blame. It was known shortly after the disappearance, for instance, that Zaharie, who had recently gone though a series of personal challenges in his life, including a divorce, had “flown” a close version of the doomed flight on his home computer using a flight simulation program.

Langewiesche also concludes that finding MH370 at this point is largely irrelevant (except to the families and loved ones of the victims), though I disagree with the first assertion. I think there is still critical evidence out there. 

With the recovery of debris from MH370 we now know that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean, and we know that it didn’t miraculously fly elsewhere and land safely, which was a popular theory early on and even today with the tin-foil hat crowd. But finding the missing 777 is irrelevant, the author claims, because it would almost certainly tell us nothing we don’t know already. The plane flew for so long after it had gone dark that the cockpit voice recorder would have recorded over in-cockpit conversations that took place when things started to go wrong. 

While Langewiesche admits that the fight data recorder might help, he gives it short shrift. FDR data would presumably show the status of systems the captain presumably disabled to keep the plane from communicating with radar facilities or from automatically sending satellite-relayed position reports. Such data, if it exists and were found, would provide direct, conclusive evidence that one of the pilots, almost certainly Zaharie, was to blame.

I agree with the author that we really already know this as a fact through a mountain of damning circumstantial evidence. Sadly, this gets us nowhere, except to the conclusion that the unspeakably tragic crash and loss of innocent life was far worse than an accident, that it was the twisted act of a single madman, which as a conclusion gives no solace. 

Related stories from Plane & Pilot:

Mysteries of Flight: Malaysia 370

Searching for Missing Aircraft

Disappearing Airliners

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