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The Disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in 2014: Facts & Theories

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The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 on March 8, 2014 has baffled investigators and remained an open wound for aggrieved families for nine years.  Now, a new three-part documentary series on Netflix has generated renewed interest in this aviation mystery and attracted legions of new onlookers to what remains the unexplained loss of a modern airliner. 

Flight MH370 vanished from the radar screens in the early hours of March 8 2014, leaving behind a trail of confusion, sadness, and mystery. The flight, bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, was carrying 239 passengers and crew members.

The Disappearance and Initial Search Efforts

The Search Area

The initial search efforts were focused on the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, based on the aircraft’s last known location. However, the Malaysian authorities later claimed that they had military radar data proving that the plane had deviated from its planned route, turning westward and flying for hours before disappearing. This information expanded the search area to the southern Indian Ocean, and for a time there were searches ongoing in both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Satellite Data Analysis

Later still, the UK’s Inmarsat satellite data was the basis for much of the search effort. Using this date, an arc of posible locations in the Indian Ocean was created by using the transmission and response from the satellite, rather like the ping and echo-reply used in network engineering.

The Investigation and Key Findings

Aircraft Systems and Maintenance

The investigation into the disappearance of MH370 included a comprehensive review of the aircraft’s systems and maintenance history. No significant issues were found that could have contributed to the plane’s disappearance.

Flight Crew and Passengers

The flight crew and passengers were also thoroughly investigated, with background checks, psychological profiles, and flight simulator data examined. No evidence of any intent or motive to deliberately bring down the plane was discovered, although there was some evidence that the pilot had losely plotted a course similar to that revealed by the Inmarsat satellite data, but it was inconclusive.

Possible Flight Path Scenarios

Various flight path scenarios were explored during the investigation, from controlled flight to unresponsive crew or aircraft systems. Despite the extensive search efforts, no definitive conclusion about the final resting place of MH370 could be drawn.

Prominent Theories on MH370’s Disappearance

Pilot Suicide

One of the most widely-discussed theories is pilot suicide, suggesting that the captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, deliberately crashed the plane in a remote part of the Indian Ocean. Pilot suicides that are also murders of the passengers and crew and not unknown, but extremely rare. For example, in 2015, Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into a mountainside killing all aboard when the co-pilot locked the pilot out of the cockpit and placed the aircraft into a controlled descent.

Soone after the loss of MH370, the Malaysian Police and the FBI raided the pilot’s home and confiscated this computer and flight simulator equipment, but after careful examination of both, no conclusive evidence was found to support this theory.

Mechanical Failure

Another theory points to a mechanical failure, such as a rapid decompression, that incapacitated the crew and passengers. The plane could have flown on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed. While plausible, no physical evidence has been found to support this theory

Hijacking

The possibility of a hijacking cannot be ruled out, with some speculating that terrorists or other criminals commandeered the plane for unknown purposes. However, the MO of airline hijackers over the decades, whatever their cause or grievance, would suggest that they would have revealed themselves to state their demands at some point.

Other Theories

As the Netflix documentary reveals, there a few other theories that have been put forward. One is that the aircraft was carrying a mysterious and precious cargo of electronics that was about the fall into the hands of the Chinese. The theory goes that US AWACS aircraft tracked the flight, jammed its radar and communications signals, ordered the pilot to deviate from its flight path, and to land at another destination, presumably so that the cargo could be confiscated before it fell into the hands of a foreign power.

The theory then goes on to suggest that the pilot refused this command and as a result of the stalemate the US reached the point of using ‘any means necessary’ and shot the aircraft down with a missile, scattering debris over the South China Sea, some of which was allegedly spotted by a woman examing satellite images of the area when they appeared online in the weeks after the disappearance. The images had been uploaded

The Ongoing Mystery

Debris Findings and Their Implications

Over the years since 2014, it has been claimed that various pieces of debris have been discovered on the shores of the Indian Ocean, as far away as Madagascar and South Africa. Some of these pieces are said to have been confirmed as belonging to the lost aircraft and analysis of them have provided some tantalising possible clues as to the configuration of the aircraft when presumably it met its fate.  If true, these findings would help to narrow down the search area but have not provided definitive answers about the plane’s final moments or location.

The Loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 July 17 2014

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 met a tragic end as it was shot down over eastern Ukraine during its journey from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The devastating incident claimed the lives of all 298 passengers and crew members on board.

In the aftermath, the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) delved into the circumstances surrounding the event, ultimately determining that a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile – fired from a region under pro-Russian separatist control – was the cause of the catastrophe. Though Russia disputes these findings, the international community predominantly stands behind the JIT’s conclusions.

In the realm of online speculation, a theory has emerged suggesting that MH17 was deliberately targeted as part of a “false flag” operation. The intention, according to this theory, was to cast blame on Russia or pro-Russian separatists and thereby intensify the conflict in Ukraine. However, no definitive evidence has surfaced to prove any connection between the ill-fated MH370 and MH17 flights thus far.

What Caused The Disappearance Of Malaysia Airlines Flight Mh370?
Photo by Fasyah Halim on Unsplash

Malaysia Airlines Safety Record

Malaysia Airlines has had a generally good safety record over its long history, with a reputation for adhering to international safety standards. Established in 1947 as Malayan Airways, it has been serving passengers for over seven decades. However, the airline faced immense scrutiny and reputational damage following the tragic incidents of MH370 and MH17 in 2014 that occurred within months of each other. 

Despite these high-profile tragedies, Malaysia Airlines has taken steps to improve its safety measures and restore confidence in its operations. The airline has continued to comply with the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Operational Safety Audit (IOSA), which is a globally recognized benchmark for airline safety management.

The Role of Technology and Human Factors

Technology Limitations

The disappearance of MH370 highlighted the limitations of current aviation technology, such as radar coverage and satellite data analysis. Although significant advances have been made since the incident, there is still room for improvement in tracking aircraft globally, especially in remote areas.

Human Factors and Decision Making

The MH370 mystery has also raised questions about human factors and decision-making in aviation safety. The investigation revealed potential gaps in communication between air traffic control, airlines, and search and rescue teams. The importance of collaboration and transparency between international organisations cannot be overstated when it comes to aviation safety.

Inmarsat Satellite Data and the AAIB

Inmarsat, a British satellite telecommunications company, played a crucial role in the investigation of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 by providing critical satellite data that helped narrow down the search area. When MH370 disappeared, its communication systems stopped transmitting, but the plane continued to exchange automated “handshake” signals with an Inmarsat satellite. These handshake signals, or “pings,” did not provide the exact location of the aircraft but offered valuable information about its possible location.

Inmarsat’s engineers analysed the handshake signals and used a technique called “burst frequency offset analysis” to estimate the aircraft’s speed and direction. They determined that the plane had followed either a northern or southern corridor, with the southern corridor deemed more likely. This analysis significantly reduced the search area and helped investigators focus their efforts in the southern Indian Ocean.

The UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) was also involved in the investigation, providing technical expertise and support. The AAIB, along with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) and other international organisations, played a critical role in analysing and validating Inmarsat’s data. The collaborative effort of these organisations helped in refining the search area, although the main wreckage of the aircraft has still not been found.

The Loss Of Malaysia Airlines Flight Mh370
Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

Conclusion

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 remains one of the most enigmatic mysteries in aviation history and continues to generate theories, some of which clearly don’t include all the evidence that has been collected so far.

It seems inconceivable that a modern airliner could disappear in such a way, in the second decade of the 21st Century, with all the electronic tracking devices and radar systems at the disposal of air traffic controllers and investigators. 

Aviation safety may have been improved as a result of the investigation but trust in the authorities and governments was undermined by the way the faltering investigation was conducted in the first few days and weeks after the disappearance. 

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