Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is a daily passenger flight between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Beijing, China. Forty-two minutes past midnight, Flight 370 is given clearance to depart. On board are Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, ten cabin crew members, and 227 passengers.
Less than an hour into the flight, the plane is cruising over the South China Sea at an altitude of 35,000 feet. The night sky is clear and the weather is calm. Flight 370 is then instructed to signal air traffic control in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam as it is about to enter Vietnamese airspace. The flight controller in Kuala Lumpur says good night with no sign that anything should be amiss. One minute and forty-three seconds later, the aircraft suddenly vanish from radar screens at Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh, and Bangkok.
This form of positional tracking depends on a signal being emitted by one of two transponders aboard the plane, and so its disappearance would suggest both transponders ceased to function, or the system was manually deactivated by someone onboard. All subsequent attempts to contact and ascertain the whereabouts of Flight 370 are unsuccessful. The aircraft has seemingly vanished without a trace.
After missing its scheduled time of arrival in Beijing some four hours later, Flight 370 is officially declared missing, and in the wake of that announcement, the most expensive search effort in aviation history is about to commence.
The search was initially concentrated around the location of the flight’s disappearance between the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. The search area was soon expanded, however, after the Malaysian military disclosed additional information. Unlike the radar system employed by Air Traffic Control, long-range military radar does not rely on transponders but use reflectance to track the position of aerial targets. A review of the data collected by the Malaysian military revealed that moments after contact with Flight 370 was lost, the aircraft had deviated from its scheduled flight path with a subtle turn to the right followed by a prolonged turn to the left.
The aircraft had then flown back towards and across the Malaysian peninsula before turning right near the island of Penang. It maintained this northwesterly heading until it escaped the radar’s coverage. Over the next few days, the Strait of Malacca, the Andaman Sea, and the Bay of Bengal was scoured by a multinational fleet of aircraft and vessels, but there was no trace of Flight 370. Meanwhile, investigators began to analyze the aircraft’s satellite communication records. Like all modern airliners, Flight 370 was equipped with a satellite communications terminal, or SATCOM, to send and received transmissions to and from the ground. Prior to departure, the SATCOM terminal had logged on to the satellite network and established a connection with a ground station in Perth, Australia.
That station then maintained a detailed record of all the incoming and outgoing traffic between it and Flight 370. This is what it contained. Prior to the flight’s disappearance over the South China Sea, everything appeared to be working as intended. Then, at some point during this portion of the flight, the SATCOM link was severed. For whatever reason, the terminal ceased to respond. But three minutes after the flight vanished over the Andaman Sea the terminal requested to log back on to the network. The SATCOM link was successfully reestablished and was not disrupted again until nearly six hours later when the flight is presumed to have crashed due to fuel exhaustion.
During these final hours, two attempts were made to contact the plane via satellite telephone. Both calls were acknowledged by the SATCOM terminal and would’ve been routed to the cockpit, yet they went unanswered. The terminal had also responded to five automatic status requests. In short, if the ground station had not heard from the aircraft in over an hour, it would transmit a signal to confirm the terminal was still online. While these transmissions did not contain any information about the flight’s position, investigators were able to measure the distance between the satellite and the aircraft at the time of each transmission based on how long it took those transmissions to be sent and received.
This generated seven rings of possible locations from which seven of these transmissions are thought to have originated. By taking fuel consumption, speed, and other factors into account, flight path analysis indicated the most probable origin of the final transmission to be somewhere along this arc in the southern Indian Ocean. The search effort shifted accordingly, and as the region fell within the jurisdiction of Australia, the Australian government took charge of the operation. Over the next few weeks, the search area was progressively refined to account for oceanic drift as well as improved estimations of the flight path. But this part of the southern Indian Ocean is so remote it took six days just to get there.
A new fleet of aircraft and vessels gradually covered more than 4,500,000 km2 of ocean, but Flight 370 was nowhere to be found. If the impact with the ocean had been sufficiently forceful, it was possible the resulting sound
had been recorded by underwater listening devices known as hydrophones. This possibility was investigated, and four hydroacoustic monitoring stations had recorded something… While the timing and direction of the sound were reasonably consistent with the final satellite transmission, the estimated origin was not. The sound was in all likelihood caused by nothing more than geological activity. Flight 370 was also equipped with two underwater locator beacons which had a battery life of some 40 days, and as the deadline approached in early April, signals with a pulse and frequency somewhat similar to the signal emitted by the beacons were detected at depths of up to 3,000 meters.
An autonomous submersible then spent weeks scanning the seafloor where the signals had been detected, but no wreckage was ever found. And nothing would be found until more than 16 months later when a discovery was made on the opposite side of the Indian Ocean. On the 29th of July, 2015, a group of people was cleaning up a beach in Réunion, a small island to the east of Madagascar, when they stumbled upon this 2-meter-long metallic object covered in barnacles.
Aviation experts quickly identified the object as a section of an aircraft wing known as a flaperon. Upon closer inspection, internal markings, including dates and serial numbers, conclusively ascertained the flaperon belonged to Flight 370. Even though Réunion Island is some 4,000 km west of the search area, and more than a year had gone by since the flight disappeared, the location was consistent with simulations of debris dispersal patterns. There was now tangible evidence that Flight 370 had crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The discovery of the flaperon prompted numerous searches along beaches and shorelines of southeastern Africa, and at least 31 additional items of interest have since been recovered and examined.
- Some of these items include:
- A section of the outboard flap from the right wing.
- A piece of cowling from one of the two engines.
- A partial door from the nose landing gear.
- A section of the vertical stabilizer.
- And a mangled casing from one of the embedded
- headrest monitors.
Eighteen of these items were identified as either likely, highly likely, or almost certain to have originated from Flight 370, whereas only three could be confirmed. The remaining eleven could not be identified. There were no traces of an explosion found on any of the debris tested nor was there any evidence of a fire except for three small burn marks on one of the unidentifiable items. The search for debris was further aided by Earth observation satellites.
Analyses of satellite imagery from March of 2014 uncovered a number of images which appeared to feature man made objects floating on or just below the surface in the southern Indian Ocean.
However, the images were not nearly sharp enough to resolve any identifiable markings, and multiple searches notwithstanding, this debris was never recovered. A satellite image taken mere hours after the final transmission, also captured what appeared to be a contrail some distance away from the search area. A later analysis, however, concluded it was most likely a shadow from a somewhat linear cloud formation. The underwater portion of the search continued for months and eventually years before it was finally suspended in early 2017. By which point some 120,000 km2 of seabed had been scrutinized. The search effort was then resumed by an American salvage company known as Ocean Infinity, but after more than a year of searching, they too came up emptyhanded. Unless the final resting place of Flight 370 can be located, it may be impossible to determine exactly why it crashed.
Nevertheless, there has been no shortage of theories. On the day of the disappearance, two of the passengers raised suspicion as they had boarded the flight with stolen passports which immediately prompted concerns of a hijacking. But investigators were unable to link the two men to any terrorist organizations and soon determined they had traveled under false identities because they were seeking asylum, not due to any nefarious intent.