MH370: Mystery of the deep

by Bernard Lagan / 18 August, 2016
As the search for flight MH370 nears an end, murder-suicide remains as a possible cause of the plane’s loss.
An RNZAF Orion searches for missing Malaysian Airways flight MH370. Photo/Getty Images

The announcement by Malaysia, China and Australia that the world’s most expensive search will soon end ensures that flight MH370 will also become the world’s greatest aviation mystery.

Unless, of course, the Malaysian Boeing 777 aircraft is found within the 9000sq km of Indian Ocean floor left to be searched of the 120,000sq km area that experts thought likely to be hiding the wreckage.

The search will not be extended beyond this area. It is an alien place of plunging undersea canyons and towering submarine volcanos – a watery wilderness 6km deep and so uncharted that when MH370 vanished, more was known about the surface of Mars.

There were 239 passengers and crew on board the plane for a six-hour overnight flight on March 8, 2014, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. That’s a relatively short hop for the extended range version of Boeing’s biggest twin-engine jet. As has been well documented, the aircraft broke off its north-easterly flight path over the Gulf of Thailand 41 minutes after takeoff. The radios fell silent and the plane turned south, flying onwards through the night for another six hours until the fuel ran out. MH370’s path is known because ground radar systems tracked the plane deviating from its course and the plane’s electronics automatically signalled a satellite as it flew south to its end.

The calling off of the hunt – once the current search is completed by year’s end – came after government ministers from the three nations paying the $200 million cost met in Kuala Lumpur on July 22. It means the world is unlikely ever to learn the answer to the greatest enigma of MH370’s disappearance: was it an accident or did a rogue pilot take command and embark on his suicide and the mass murder of everybody else on board?

Without the aircraft’s black box flight-data recorders – they include cockpit conversations – it is unlikely we will ever know. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which has co-ordinated the under­water search for MH370 – by dint of Australia’s international search and rescue responsibilities for the southern Indian Ocean – has worked on the theory that it was most likely a catastrophic accident. The bureau’s hypothesis has been that an on-board fire or explosion caused the pilots to suddenly reverse course for an emergency landing but that they were overcome, probably by lack of oxygen. The aircraft simply continued south on autopilot, the course reversal having been locked in by the pilots before they died. It was then a ghost flight.

More sinister is the rogue-pilot theory: that somebody deliberately flew the aircraft to the southern Indian Ocean intent on ending the lives of all aboard. There is little to support it: nothing has ever come to light to suggest the Malaysian pilots had a motive, there is nothing in their background or that of any passenger and no terror­ist organisation has claimed responsibility.

Yet, perversely, the failure of the search for MH370 adds weight to the rogue-pilot theory. If the aircraft is not found in the remaining part of the search zone, says bureau chief Martin Dolan, the conclusion that someone was flying it is hard to escape. “We’re not at the point yet, but sooner or later will be – and we will have to explain to governments what the alternative is.”

Dolan says, “That someone was at the controls of that aircraft on the flight, and gliding it, becomes a more significant possibility if we eliminate all of the current search area.”

Without wreckage to examine, how MH370 and those on board met their end is a matter of conjecture.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

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