BEIJING – After a week of false leads, U-turns, wild speculation and outright contradictions, it was hard to believe there could be any more surprises in the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.
But when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak finally appeared before the media Saturday afternoon — almost 45 minutes later than scheduled and for the first time since Flight MH370 went missing seven days before — his words were startling.
Not only did investigators believe the plane had been deliberately diverted after its communication systems were switched off, but they believed it had been sending signals to satellites from air or ground as late as 8:11 a.m. on March 8, more than 6½ hours after it had lost contact with air control staff and 45 minutes after the Boeing 777 had been declared missing in a statement from the airline.
That final ping came from one of two lengthy air corridors stretching as far as Kazakhstan to the north or the southern Indian Ocean — around western Australia — in the other; by that point, if still in the air, the plane would probably have been almost out of fuel. The initial search area in the South China Sea was no longer relevant, but an even vaster swath of land and sea was now in play.
Within the central mystery of where Flight MH370 ended — and why — lie two more puzzles.
How could a passenger jet, 74 meters long and with a 61-meter wingspan, apparently disappear for six hours before anyone raised the alarm?
And how could it cross the airspace of multiple countries in a region sensitive about security without anyone noticing?
Each day of the investigation has brought fresh suspicions, theories and facts, often debunked in less than 24 hours.
“We are going through a roller coaster and feel helpless and powerless,” one woman waiting for news of a relative said.
Were it not for the tragedy of the 239 passengers and crew members missing aboard the plane, it would seem like the stuff of a Hollywood thriller.
“A normal investigation becomes narrower with time as new information focuses the search,” Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had said Friday. “But this is not a normal investigation.”
It was 12:41 a.m. on Saturday, March 8, when Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing. The 227 passengers were in experienced hands. Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah had served the airline for 23 years; his first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, for seven. Around 40 minutes later came the last verbal contact with the plane, as Malaysian air traffic control told the flight deck that their next contact would be with Vietnamese authorities. “All right, good night,” was the reply. It is not clear which of the pilots was speaking.
Vietnamese authorities say the flight never entered their airspace; according to another pilot, they asked him to relay a message to MH370. Whether they took any further action is unknown. What is certain is that it was not until 7:24 a.m., almost an hour after the plane’s scheduled arrival time of 6:30 a.m., that the airline announced it was missing.
The early hours of the search were chaotic, but they often are. A persistent but false rumor suggested an emergency landing in southern China; it appeared sufficiently credible that Malaysia Airlines investigated.
The circumstances were so unusual — good weather, the lack of a distress call, the experience of the pilots and the strong safety records of both the Boeing 777 and Malaysia Airlines — that the possibility of a deliberate disappearance surfaced quickly. Some cited the possibility of a pilot suicide — thought to have happened in at least two air crashes — with whoever was at the controls carrying out a deliberate nose dive into the South China Sea. But the way that data from the plane stopped suddenly suggested to many a possible explosion or perhaps a catastrophic engine failure. Experts predicted the plane or its wreckage would be found within a day or so.
Then, as authorities began to break the news to families, it emerged that two listed passengers were not on board. Their passports had been stolen a year or more before and were being used by others. Speculation of a hijacking soared, only to be curtailed on Tuesday when Interpol said it believed the young Iranians using those passports were not terrorists but seeking asylum in Europe.
On the same day, the inspector-general of Malaysian police announced that his officers were looking at four possible causes of the disappearance: hijacking, sabotage, or the crew and passengers’ personal or psychological problems.
But officials stressed they were examining all possible explanations and Malaysia Airlines said the plane might have turned back toward Kuala Lumpur, suggesting to many that technical problems might have caused an attempted return to its departure point.
By now, however, people were treating new announcements with wariness at best, given the confusions and outright contradictions; on Tuesday, the police chief said that five people had checked in but not boarded; the following day, the transport minister insisted no one had done so. Officials brushed crucial questions aside, described them as “too sensitive” or on occasion seemed to simply misunderstand them.
“There has been misinformation and corrections from Malaysian authorities on the whereabouts of MH370,” Peter Goelz, former managing director of the U.S. government’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told CNN, calling it the worst disaster management he had seen. “At best, Malaysian officials have thus far been poor communicators; at worst, they are incompetent.
The crisis has revealed the inefficiencies within the Malaysian system. It has also reflected enduring mistrust between many of the 14 countries involved in the search, unused to that level of cooperation. Malaysia appeared reluctant to disclose its radar data to neighbors; they were exasperated by the lack of clarity over the aircraft’s path.
Suspicion remains that Malaysians were aware that the plane had headed west long before they announced it; in early statements Malaysia Airlines repeatedly said last contact with the plane was at 2:40 a.m., long after the transponder was turned off but coinciding with a possible military radar sighting announced much later.
It has also become evident that while Malaysia remains in charge of the investigation, American expertise and capability in areas such as satellite technology is proving critical to the investigation’s development. Staff from the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB, which investigates all domestic U.S. air crashes, have been joined by commercial experts from Boeing and British flight investigators.
U.S. leaks may also have proved critical to pushing the Malaysians toward greater transparency: The Wall Street Journal was the first to raise the possibility that the plane had flown for several hours after its last contact, citing unnamed U.S. sources.
But since the diversion is believed to be deliberate, unraveling the mystery of Flight MH370 is now likely to rely as much on deciphering human clues as technical data: Who was responsible and what did they want? Whether the plane was diverted by one of the crew or a passenger is unknown. If, as seems likely, it was the captain or first officer flying, it is also possible they were acting under duress.
If MH370 did indeed turn south, there are few obvious places it could have landed in the Indian Ocean. More likely, officials suggest, it might have crashed into the sea.
For relatives, the report of a deliberate diversion has raised fading hopes that those on board might still be alive. But a week after MH370 went missing, they also face the cruel prospect that its ultimate fate may never be known.