How, in this high-tech age of uber-surveillance, in which hundreds of satellites sweep the Earth and modern aircraft have multiple communications systems with triple redundancies, can a plane vanish?
Six days after it disappeared, despite a hunt involving more than 80 vessels and aircraft, no debris has been found in the South China Sea, over which the plane disappeared, or the Strait of Malacca.
This is quite unprecedented, says Ann Williamson, a professor of aviation safety at the University of NSW. We are talking about a demonstrably safe aircraft, an airline with a good safety record, and a very experienced pilot. After this amount of time, I think its fair to conclude they have been looking in the wrong place.
Indeed, confirmation on Friday that an extra search area had been opened in the Indian Ocean, some 1000 kilometres west from where last contact was made with the plane, indicates as much. The expanded search was based on new but not necessarily conclusive information, White House spokesman Jay Carney said. Inconclusive information has defined the investigation into the disappearance of MH370, but there are some facts.
With 227 passengers and 12 crew on board, flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpurs airport at 12.41am, local time. The last transmission from the plane was at 1.07am, when it was cruising at about 33,000 feet over the Gulf of Thailand just as it entered Vietnamese airspace. The contact indicated everything was normal, Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysias defence minister said.
Suddenly, all communication ceased, including any from the continuous ACARS data-monitoring system, which emits data from the engine, or from the planes high-frequency radio. There was no mayday call and the planes secondary radar, which sends its location to earth-based radar stations, stopped functioning. However, even though the secondary radar was inoperable, ground or sea-based radar known as primary radar could still pick up the plane, just not identify it with precision.
Intriguingly, a Malaysian military radar did pick up a reading from an unidentified object flying west across the Malaysian peninsula on Saturday morning. The final blip from the radar was at 2.15am, positioning the object about 320 kilometres north-west of Penang, or about 500 kilometres from MH370s last known position, Malaysias air force chief, General Rodzali Daud, said.
Malaysian authorities still believe it is possible the plane may have suddenly disintegrated or been forced into a rapid descent at the moment contact was lost. But after six days, some kind of debris should have been found, given the massive search. Moreover, no signal has been detected from the flight recording device. By contrast, remnants of the Air France jet that crashed en route to Paris from Rio in 2009 was detected within two days after a search that spanned the Atlantic Ocean.
Indications suggest MH370 continued to fly on after communications abruptly ended, probably on a different, westerly course from its planned route to China. There are two broad scenarios that could explain this.
First, MH370 was hijacked and its transponders deliberately shut down, either by the pilots or someone else on board. Malaysian authorities have said this option is being considered, with the psychological state of the pilots being scrutinised.
Then theres the theory described by former Qantas head of security Geoff Askew as extremely unlikely that any hijacking could have been motivated by something valuable in the plane, whether in the cargo or the plane itself. US counterterrorism officials are also, reportedly, examining a possible terrorist hijacking.
Even so, while two Iranian men were on the flight with stolen passports, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble has said they were probably not terrorists.
There was also a Chinese Uighur, Maimaitijiang Abula, on board. The Uighurs, an oppressed Muslim minority from western China, have launched a series of brutal but low-tech terrorist acts in China, including the gruesome train station knifing rampage by masked assailants this month that killed 29 people. But Maimaitijiang is a renowned oil painter, not an employee at a Swedish flight-simulation facility, as Malaysian media earlier reported.
As for the pilots, Malaysian authorities deny they have extremist links.
A terrorist link remains a live area of inquiry and could be behind the second possible scenario that could explain why MH370 may have travelled way off course with no communications. That theory suggests an explosion or structural failure on the plane caused a rupture in its fuselage that was significant but not enough to destroy the plane or send it into a nosedive.
Such an event would lead to decompression, depriving those on board of oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia. Previous flights have crashed after a decompression of the cabin rendered everyone unconscious, the plane falling to earth once the fuel ran out.
Hypoxia can easily reduce a highly functioning individual to utterly useless in 90 seconds, one pilot said on an internet forum this week. Enough time, perhaps, for a pilot to try to turn a plane around before falling unconscious, with the plane continuing on its new course.
An explosion in the cargo hold from a device secreted in baggage is another possibility. Cargo does not typically get the rigorous screening of passenger luggage. And a planes communications technology is usually located in the cargo hold.
Much has been made of a US safety regulator warning last year of corrosion and cracking around the satellite antenna of Boeing 777s like MH370, but Boeing insists MH370 did not have that type of antenna.
Analysts have also pointed to an incident on a Qantas jet in 2008, when an exploding oxygen tank in the cargo hold exploded in midair, ripping a two-metre hole in the fuselage. The pilots skilfully made an emergency descent to 10,000 feet a breathable level before making an emergency landing.
But if a terrorist hijacked the plane or planted an explosive device, why has no one claimed responsibility? Given the multiple communications back-ups on a modern plane, could all the communications systems be knocked out by an explosion or structural failure and the plane continue to fly?
Wild guesses appear on social media, where riveted users are thinking about everything from black ops to black magic.
Here are some of the likely and unlikely theories about the disappearance of the Malaysian airplane.
- total electrical failure
- plane crashed due to weather anomaly (or Bermuda Triangle like event )
- Boeing 777 could have landed safely and its occupants are still alive
- terrorists hijacked or exploded the plane
- planned assassination of important person(s) on the plane (made to look like an accident)
- theft of the mysterious cargo (gold?, weapons?) carried on the plane; plane landed in secret location e.g. an island in the Indian Ocean
- the Malaysian (or other) military might have mistakenly shot down the passenger plane
- meteor strike
- alien/UFO abduction
- the time anomaly along the story presented on the TV series Lost
- and more
Malaysia Flight 370: The 10 big questions
Every day brings new details and new questions surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777 with 239 people aboard that went missing on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Here are 10 questions surrounding what we know and what we dont know:
- What do we know about the pilots?
- What do we know about communications to and from the plane?
- Where could the plane be? What could have happened to it?
- Couldnt a pilot just fly under the radar?
- Could the plane have landed somewhere?
- How likely is hijacking or terrorism in this situation?
- Could mechanical failure explain it?
- What other theories and speculation have been offered?
- What about reports that passengers cell phones continued operating after the flights disappearance?
- Is this the first time a plane has vanished?
The missing Malaysian jetliner was deliberately diverted and continued flying for more than six hours after severing contact with the ground, meaning it could have gone as far northwest as Kazakhstan or into the Indian Oceans southern reaches, Malaysias leader said Saturday.
India or even the north-west coast of Australia.
Prime Minister Najib Razaks statement confirmed days of mounting speculation that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to Beijing more than a week ago was not accidental. It also refocused the investigation into the flights crew and passengers, and underlined the complicated task for searchers who already have been scouring vast areas of ocean.
Clearly the search for MH370 has entered a new phase, Najib said at a televised news conference.
Najib stressed that investigators were looking into all possibilities as to why the Boeing 777 deviated so drastically from its original flight path, saying authorities could not confirm whether it was a hijacking. Earlier Saturday, a Malaysian official said the plane had been hijacked, though he added that no motive had been established and no demands had been made known.
In view of this latest development, the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board, Najib told reporters, reading from a written statement but not taking any questions.
Investigators have concluded that one or more people with significant flying experience hijacked the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, switched off communication devices and steered it off-course, a Malaysian government official involved in the investigation said Saturday.
No motive has been established and no demands have been made known, and it is not yet clear where the plane was taken, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. It is conclusive, he said. He said evidence that led to the conclusion were signs that the planes communications were switched off deliberately, data about the flight path and indications the plane was steered in a way to avoid detection by radar.
Fariq Hamid, left, and Zaharie Shah.(Twitter/Facebook)
Zaharie Ahmad Shah was the pilot on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which went missing; Fariq Abdul Hamid was the co-pilot.
If the pilots were involved in the disappearance, were they working together or alone, or with one or more of the passengers or crew?
Did they fly the plane under duress or of their own volition?
Did one or more of the passengers manage to break into the cockpit, or use the threat of violence to gain entry and then pilot the plane?
Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possibilities, and to establish what happened with any degree of certainty investigators will likely need to examine information, including cockpit voice recordings, from the planes flight data recorders should the jet be located ( via ).