Unravelling the Theories Behind the Disappearance of MH370

14 Mar 14 13 Comments

I’ll be honest: I was really, really hoping that the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 would be solved by today and I wouldn’t have to write about all the second-guessing.

Unfortunately, that’s still (hang on, checking the news one more time) that’s still not happened.

So, let’s go over what we know. All times are Malaysian local time.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, codeshare China Southern Airlines Flight 748, was a scheduled passenger flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China.

On the 8th of March 2014, at Flight Level 350, the Boeing 777 disappeared with 239 souls on board less than an hour after take-off.

Unlike Air France Flight 447, there were no known system failures. The last engine data transmission was received at 01:07.

(Yes, I know about the Wall Street Journal piece. Those were not engine data transmissions. We’ll get to that.)

The flight crew ended communications with Kuala Lumpur air traffic control and should have contacted controllers in Vietnam but never did.

The aircraft disappeared from radar at 01:30.

This was the search and rescue forces as of the 12th and 13th:

Now the guessing games begin. The problem is, this is a mystery and we love mysteries. So everyone wants to try to solve it, to figure out what happened. And right now, we simply don’t have enough data.

One of my favourite articles so far on the subject is this parody in the Onion:

Malaysia Airlines Expands Investigation To Include General Scope Of Space, Time | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA—Following a host of conflicting reports in the wake of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last Saturday, representatives from the Kuala Lumpur–based carrier acknowledged they had widened their investigation into the vanished Boeing 777 aircraft today to encompass not only the possibilities of mechanical failure, pilot error, terrorist activity, or a botched hijacking, but also the overarching scope of space, time, and humankind’s place in the universe.

I’m seeing a lot of speculation, second-guessing and even anger that “they” have not yet found the plane, thus “they” are clearly not trying hard enough. Frustration is building because we haven’t been able to solve the mystery and find the plane. Communication has been bad, there’s no question, but this is partially because it is very hard to hold press conferences and updates when there is nothing new to say.

In addition, we are looking at different types of facts.

  • facts from governments
  • facts from those apparently close to the investigation
  • facts from media
  • facts from data that is freely available on the internet

Note I’ve neglected to mention facts from arm-chair investigators like me. We don’t have any facts, only possibilities. It’s important to remember that.

Let’s debunk some information first. We’ll start with the “last-minute turn” on the Flightradar 24 data.

You can replay the actual flight on their website:

Bear in mind times on Flightradar are in UTC, not local time to the flight.

Much has been made of the turn the aircraft made shortly before disappearing, which can be seen on the Flightradar 24 data. The implication is that this was the aircraft turning back or heading to an unexpected location. Here’s Flight Radar’s statement on this:

Here is a #MH370 situation update from Flightradar24 because of the many questions we get.

The ADS-B transponder of an aircraft is transmitting data twice per second. FR24 saves data every 10-60 second depending on altitude. On cruising altitude data is normally saved once per 60 seconds. By analyzing all our databases and logs we have managed to recover about 2 signals per minute for the last 10 minutes.

The last location tracked by Flightradar24 is
Time UTC: 17:21:03
Lat: 6.97
Lon: 103.63
Alt: 35000
Speed: 471 knots
Heading: 40

Between 17:19 and 17:20 the aircraft was changing heading from 25 to 40 degrees, which is probably completely according to flight plan as MH370 on both 4 March and 8 March did the same at the same position. Last 2 signals are both showing that the aircraft is heading in direction 40 degrees.

Today there are reports in media that MH370 may have turned around. FR24 have not tracked this. This could have happened if the aircraft suddenly lost altitude as FR24 coverage in that area is limited to about 30000 feet.

FR24 have not tracked any emergency squawk alerts for flight MH370 before we lost coverage of the aircraft.

Earlier in the week, much was made of the fact that two passengers on the jet had boarded with false passports. In the meantime, the two people who had been using the passports have been identified by Malaysian police and dismissed as unlikely to be terrorists.

The popular idea that this flight suffered the same fate as Helios Flight 522 in which the pilots lost cabin pressure and did not put on their oxygen masks seems unlikely. We never lost contact with Helios Flight 522 and in fact tracked it until the final crash. It was a ghost plane with all systems functioning.

In contrast, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. If it were the same scenario, the pilots of Flight 370 would have had to turn off the comms and transponder as a final act before submitting to hypoxia. It’s possible, but it just doesn’t seem very likely.

For the aircraft to disappear from radar like that, it would have been a case of explosive decompression, where the differential pressure at 35,000 feet actually broke up the aircraft. If this were the case, there would be no peaceful drifting of the aircraft until it ran out of fuel.

A bomb on the aircraft would have a similar effect. I’m leaning against terrorist activity because there’s been no verifiable claim of responsibility and for a terrorist action to hold weight, people need to know that it happened. That leaves assassination and I just can’t help but think there are easier ways to get rid of someone than to sneak onto a plane with a bomb and blow yourself up.

Hijack gets complicated fast because not only do you have to overwhelm the cabin crew and get control of the cockpit, you also have to deal with 227 passengers all of whom have mobile phones. Silencing the aircraft and all the passengers is technically possible but again, the ability to disappear without a trace is complicated and seems unlikely. That would also mean that the hijackers not only managed to disappear an aircraft without a trace, but also landing a Boeing 777 without anyone noticing. It seems unlikely unless there’s a conspiracy of the hugest kind.

OK, so now we get to the WSJ article.

Satellite Data Reveal Route of Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – WSJ.com

Malaysia Airlines MH370 missing jet transmitted its location repeatedly to satellites over the course of five hours after it disappeared from radar, people briefed on the matter said, as searchers zeroed in on new target areas hundreds of miles west of the plane’s original course.
The satellites also received speed and altitude information about the plane from its intermittent “pings,” the people said. The final ping was sent from over water, at what one of these people called a normal cruising altitude.

The data transmission they are talking about is the Aircraft Communications and Reporting System (ACARS).

ACARS is a continuous data monitoring system which transmits data automatically. It is what alerted us to the icing situation on Air France 447. And it is that last data received from the engines at 01:07 as the Malaysia Airlines 370 was in the climb for a cruise at 35,000 feet.

ACARS data is event driven, so the silence from 01:07 to 01:30 when the aircraft disappeared is not meaningful. There was simply nothing to report. The last transmission indicated that the aircraft was operating normally.

So when the Malaysian officials insist that there was no further data transmission from the engines after 01:07, that is completely correct.

However, apparently US sources have found that satellites received “faint pings” from the ACARS system, which appear to be the standard “are you there” broadcast which an ACARS system puts out every thirty minutes.

The Boeing’s ACARS communications connected through VHF. There is an additional fee for an ACARS satellite communication link, which Malaysia Airlines did not pay for. So no data would ever have been transferred from the aircraft to the satellite.

Now, if the aircraft was functional but out of VHF coverage, the ACARS system would automatically try to connect through the satellite communications. However, as that was not a service that the aircraft was signed up for, the satellite would not accept the connection.

This can be compared to going out of coverage with your mobile phone. The phone will continue to try to connect and every network which is not your network will reject those connections.

Now, what the Wall Street Journal is reporting is that eight such connection attempts (pings) were found on the log of the satellite. As those pings happen every 30 minutes, that implies that the aircraft had power four another four hours after it disappeared.

If this is correct (and it has not been verified by anyone actually involved in the investigation, so it might not be), then presumably the aircraft continued to fly for some time after the disappearance. If so, this absolutely implies a manual disabling of the comms system, rather than a systems failure.

Recent reports have jumped on this and come up with theories fit for a Dan Brown novel as to how the aircraft was stolen for nefarious purposes.

Today, various newspapers have claimed that the aircraft may have turned towards the Andamans islands and landed there in secrecy; however that still leaves the slight plot-hole that no one has seen an unexpected Boeing 777.

The editor of the Andaman Chronicle says there is no aircraft there.

“There are no chances that such a big aircraft coming to the Andaman islands can be missed.” And yet the headlines continue.

As long as there is no hard news, speculation and guessing will remain in the forefront. Everyone has a pet theory, ranging from pilot suicide to government plots. My favourite crazy ending to this tragedy so far is the only one that would give us a happy ending: that the disappearance is part of a viral advertisement for a new season of Lost.

I hope that the search parties find some evidence of the aircraft soon. My personal opinion is that the aircraft suffered some catastrophic failure at the beginning of the cruise and is now at the bottom of the ocean. But honestly, until we actually have more data, actual verifiable facts, there’s no real point in guessing.


  • So far Sylvia’s guess is as good as any.
    For: the sudden and total disappearance.
    Against: even in the event of a catastrophic failure it is unlikely that an aircraft will disappear so suddenly and without any trace.
    More likely is that the transponder will still be functioning, at least for a duration sufficient to indicate that something has gone wrong. E.g. a sudden and steep descent before all electrical systems fail which could – and should – have been picked up by the ATC radar.
    Most ATC radar systems are set up to filter out irrelevant returns, even transponder returns not relevant to a particular controller may be eliminated from his or her console.
    ATC centrers often have a radar which can pick up primary(non-transponder)returns but it is often non permanently monitored.
    Which may well indicate a hijack by suicide terrorists. An aircraft like the 777 would have been on autopilot. So my (totally hypothetical) scenario would be: Hijackers forcibly enter the cockpit, shoot the crew before they can even transmit a distress signal, switch off the transponder, alter course and after putting a certain distance between them and their last reported position ignite a bomb that totally obliterates the aircraft. Since they covered possibly hundreds of miles before their act, locating the wreckage is worse than looking for the proverbial needle because at least the position of the haystack is known.
    But then, usually a terrorist organisation will come forward to claim the atrocity.
    So in reality we do not know anything at all.

  • A really good summary of the situation so far.

    One of the interesting things to note from this is how the government of a country, not used to be particularly open, deals with communicating information to all the interested parties and the media, compared to the reporting from accidents in the US or a European country.

    My thoughts on this is that if the aircraft did suffer some catastrophic failure (and that’s what I initially imagined), given the intensity of the search, I would have thought a week on, that some debris or oil slick would have been found by now.

    Meanwhile, Jay Carney, the White House communications chief who said the US was shifting the focus of its search to the Indian Ocean based on ‘new information’ which I imagine is those satellite pings.

    I agree with you on the idea that a full-on hijack is an unlikely scenario given trying to control nearly 240 people would be nigh on impossible and require an army of accomplices. That then leads to the thought ‘what if the pilots were involved?’ Could they have taken the aircraft off track without anyone on board realising? The aircraft took off just after midnight. If they did turn west, it would have been night-time for the entirety of the flight, so no-one would have necessarily realised they were over sea rather than the landmass of central China. The in-flight journey map, which updates in real time from information fed from the flight deck, would have had to be shut down. That can’t be done without disabling the entire in-flight entertainment system, which would have certainly involved a dialogue between the flight crew and cabin crew (normally done in person to the flight deck by the chief crew-member). In addition, cabin crew are required to regularly visit the flight deck to provide food and beverages. So, if there had been any problems on the flight deck, I think the cabin crew would have known about it.

    I’m currently in the US where the news stations are doing wall-to-wall coverage on this, based on all the speculation that’s been flying around over the last week. It’s exhausting to watch with hopes raised and dashed with each new snippet. I can’t imagine what the families of those on board must be going through – it must be a nightmare for them.

  • I do think the tone in which you write this is questionable to say the least. 239 people are missing who have probably experienced a terrifying and untimely end to their lives that is all our worst worst fear.

    Thousands of people are waking up every day and their first thought is mourning, heartbreak and despair.

    Yes “we all love a good mystery” as you put it but keep this tone for Agatha Christie novels not current real life trauma, heartbreak and loss.

  • Great comments by Rudy and Anna, as always.

    An observer: Charlie’s theory doesn’t deal with the cut off communications, which implies a deliberate action on someone’s part.

    Richard, I’m sorry that you took offense and a reminder that there are real people there is never amiss. Having said that, this is an aviation blog which focuses on plane crashes. I will describe the public reaction as I see it, and I am not seeing mourning and despair, I am seeing speculation and guessing.

    Of course it is a tragedy and of course you have the right to be upset at people’s reactions, the same as I have the right to be upset at wild theories. But I would say that coming into someone’s virtual (internet) home and telling her you don’t like her tone is questionable, as well.

  • Additionally, while people’s loss is always a important factor, it is worth pointing out that this is a largely factual blog.

    Appreciating people’s sense of loss and respecting their feelings is of course important, however this is exploring the facts that are currently known regarding the crash, not exploring the effect of the crash on the loss of those passengers and the upset it causes their family & loved ones.

  • All that we (on this forum) can do is speculate.
    What is a tragedy is that not only 239 people are missing, presumably dead, but not a shred of information is available to the surviving relatives to lessen their grief and confusion.
    I agree with Anna that a catastrophic failure would seem to fit the scenario, but even so it would seem logical to assume that a transponder signal would still be transmitted, if even for a few seconds before all electrical current fails.
    That would, or might, have given a “bleep” on the radar screen indicating the imminent crash.
    A failure of the magnitude that causes a large airliner to totally disappear without any trace, although not entirely impossible, nevertheless is not very likely.
    What remains of this mystery is the (in my opinion) only explanation: human interference with the flight.
    The cockpit of a modern aircraft is fairly secure. If a terrorist breaks it down, it certainly would give the pilots just enough time to send a distress signal of some sort.
    But then, a well-prepared hijacker might just follow a cabin crew member as he or she enters the cockpit. Which can be to give the pilots a cup of tea. This would certainly catch them off-guard and might just explain why the transponder was suddenly switched off and why no further communication was received after the last routine call.
    The other possibility is that one of the crew members was involved. Which could explain the absence of any distress call and the disappearance of the transponder signal.
    Obviously also ATC were caught totally by surprise. If the aircraft remained in the air for some time, maybe even a lot longer than previously thought, it could have flown in any direction before the controllers even considered checking their primary radar.
    There still are rumours that the Boeing may have been in the air, even hours after it disappeared.
    There are other rumours still persisting that the aircraft has made a large change of course.
    This, in turn, would seem to confirm that whoever was behind this (assuming human interference) had sufficient knowledge of operating an aircraft and it’s systems to make it disappear so suddenly and totally.
    A question that must be asked – and no doubt has already been investigated: Was there anyone amongst the passengers who could be of interest to a group of terrorists or criminals? E.g. a high ranking politician.
    Or was the aircraft perhaps carrying cargo of high value? E.g. a diamond shipment.
    I think it is extremely unlikely that it has landed somewhere safely.
    An aircraft the size of a 777 will be spotted by a satellite when on the ground. More so if the location is not one where an airliner of that size could be expected to be parked.
    So, whatever the outcome, I fear the worst.

  • Rudy, sorry that I wasn’t clear – I don’t believe the aircraft was subject to catastrophic failure. The US has confirmed that none of their spy satellites picked up any signs of an explosion in that area – and presumably they’re now combing the entire area the aircraft may have flown, for any signs of one.

    If hijackers were among the passengers, they wouldn’t have to break down the flightdeck door. As you suggested, cabin crew routinely go in and out with food and beverages and the pilots occasionally need toilet breaks. In addition, it sounds like the rules were fairly relaxed at the airline, as it’s been reported that the first officer recently invited two pretty young women to the flightdeck for the entirety of a flight from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, with apparently the captain’s blessing. If this were the case, it would appear this occurred while the aircraft was still in the climb, before it left Malaysian airspace, since the ACARS system was disabled before the pilot made his last call.

    The aircraft being in the air hours after it disappeared has been officially confirmed. Inmarsat has confirmed that one of its satellites continued to register automated signals from MH370 for seven hours after the aircraft’s disappearance.

    Regarding high-profile passengers – there hasn’t been any mention of one, so I assume not, as that would have been reported very early on. As for high-value cargo, that’s an interesting one and not something that would necessarily be reported. That said, that kind of ‘heist’ would take huge amounts of time and planning, and I don’t think a particular shipment of cargo is guaranteed to be on a specific aircraft on a specific date that far into the future (if that makes sense).

    Despite the idea being completely outlandish and very ‘Hollywood’, at that point, I wouldn’t be surprised if that aircraft did manage to land somewhere and has been hidden.

  • Well written, Sylvia. Easy to follow and filled in a lot of details for me — facts that I didn’t understand until I read this. Good job!

  • Anna,
    Yes my idea of high value cargo is very “Hollywood” and not very likely. But the authorities are still clutching at straws.
    Safely landing an aircraft the size of a B777 without anyone noticing and then hiding it ? With no spy satellite picking up anything, nothing, no infra-red signature ? It would have had to land on a very remote, abandoned airport with a runway at least a mile long.
    If it crashed, the wreckage might be even more difficult to hide from view.
    Which such landing area – if any – would have met all criteria ? If this really had been the scenario it would have required an awful lot of planning, extremely pre-meditated and would have required some ground crew waiting.
    This is also more like a scene from a James Bond film. But at this moment, nothing can be ruled out.
    But I would be inclined to stick to a rather “impromptu” event. Maybe it was a cockpit crew member who interfered or perhaps it was a botched hijack ?
    I fear the worst for the 239 people on board, though.

  • And still no further news on this baffling riddle.
    The most bizarre riddle in aviation possibly since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart !

  • It is 23rd June and the disappearance of MH 370 is no longer “hot”.

    But the newspapers came up with something intriguing:
    The captain had owned a (probably sophisticated) simulator. In itself nothing suspicious. Many dedicated pilots own something like it. Don’t forget that an airline pilot is on probation during his or her entire career. A poor performance during one of the many simulator sessions to which a pilot will be subjected at least every year, and in some airlines even every 6 months, can lead to demotion, missing promotion or even dismissal.
    So quite a few of us used to have a PC-based simulator to “keep sharp”.
    But in this case, if we may believe the newspapers, investigators found evidence that the captain had been using his simulator to practise landing a large (A330 size) aircraft on a remote, small jungle strip and the investigation, under pressure from the Chinese authorities, is once again turning to a search for the aircraft on land, perhaps somewhere in India.
    Hoax or truth ? The disappearance of a large commercial airliner is such an unusual occurrence that nothing can be ruled out.

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