‘Good Night, Malaysian Three Seven Zero’: unraveling an aviation mystery

The largest and most expensive search in the history of flight has ended, with none of the 239 people on board found

'Good Night, Malaysian Three Seven Zero': unraveling an aviation mystery
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The almost three year-search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was suspended on 17 January.
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

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This article titled “‘Good Night, Malaysian Three Seven Zero’: unraveling an aviation mystery” was written by Oliver Holmes South-east Asia correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 17th January 2017 09.32 UTC

“Good Night, Malaysian Three Seven Zero.”

It was the last radio message sent from the cockpit of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, voiced in the dispassionate tone of a routine call to air traffic control.

Yet the Boeing 777 proceeded to fly an erratic and unscheduled route for a further seven hours before what investigators believe was a crash into the Indian Ocean. No distress signal was ever sent.

On 17 January, the official hunt for MH370 was suspended only weeks before the third anniversary of its disappearance.

The missing passenger plane with 239 people onboard has become one of aviation’s greatest mysteries after it veered off course during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March 2014.

The multinational search was the largest and most expensive in aviation history, with ships and aircraft joining from the United States to India to China, and coordinated by Australia.

And for nearly three years, the families of the missing have been forced to grapple with dozens of unproven theories.

“MH370 is unique among air disasters in the respect that the loss wasn’t a clean wound but a continuing series of pain, shock and dying hope,” said Australian national Jennifer Chong, 48, who lost her husband of 23 years.

“We still have no answers as to what happened to Chong Ling and where is he now. Was he awake? Did he suffer?” she asks. “My children need to know why their father did not return from work.”

The story of MH370 is one of failures and broken hopes: from accusations that the aircraft should never have been cleared to fly; to the heartbroken families who took the investigation into their own hands and may even have found a piece of the plane; to the mishaps by the airline during the vital first few hours.

A mixture of satellite data, radar tracking, and air traffic control reports analysed in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance plunged the search into a confused mystery from the start.

The first hours

Unheeded warnings began less than an hour after it took off, when two of the jet’s communication systems were cut off.

The first was the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, which sends messages from the plane to the ground. Its last message was at 1.07am, but a scheduled transmission 30 minutes later was never sent.

Then the pilot sent his final radio call to Kuala Lumpur but failed to check in as scheduled with air traffic controllers in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Two minutes later, the plane’s transponder, a vital radar system that broadcasts height and location information, stopped transmitting.

Analysts later suggested an electrical fire might have damaged the equipment or, a more nefarious explanation, someone switched it off.

Despite the communication shutdown, the plane was tracked by Malaysian and Thai military radar, showing it turning west and then north to the Andaman Sea.

In the final few hours of its flight, MH370 was plotted by satellites above the Indian Ocean, indicating it had banked south and flew for hundreds of miles before disappearing entirely.

‘Beyond any reasonable doubt’

For two weeks, there was optimism from some that the plane and its passengers may be found. An initial hunt stretched from Kazakhstan to Antarctica, with search areas changing as more information was released. Even Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said there may be a “slim hope” of their being survivors.

But on 24 March 2014, he told a late-night press conference “with deep sadness and regret” that new analysis of satellite data showed the last known position of the aircraft was over a remote area of the ocean, far from any possible landing sites.

Malaysia Airlines sent a message to families. It had to assume, it said, “beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived”.

Of the 227 passengers including seven children, 153 were Chinese and 38 were Malaysian. Other nationalities included American, Iranian, Canadian, Indonesian, Australian, Indian, French, New Zealanders, Ukrainian, Russian, Taiwanese and Dutch.

Family members who had gathered at a hotel in Beijing wailed as they heard the news and some had to be carried out on stretchers. But they still wanted answers, as did the public.

“No one deserves to go through a similar tragedy ever again,” said Chong. “There is absolutely no ambiguity on how to achieve this, we must find the wreckage.”

Evidence washed ashore

The search was expanded to 120,000 sq km (46,000 sq miles) of seabed about 2,000 km (1,250 miles) off the coast of Perth, Australia.

Within two months, Australian and Chinese vessels using underwater listening equipment detected ultrasonic signals, which might have been from the black box. Satellites located debris and oil slicks on the surface of the water, too.

But a follow-up search found nothing. And a year later, Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport announced to the anger of families that a battery on one of two underwater beacons attached to the plane’s black box had expired in 2012.

Subsequent months of scanning found nothing. In May of 2015, search teams even found a shipwreck but no plane.

Then, after more than a year, a 2.7m-long piece of metal covered in barnacles washed up on Réunion Island, more than 3,700km (2,300 miles) away from the main search site.

As a French overseas territory, authorities on the island, east of Madagascar, sent the piece to Toulouse where investigators confirmed it was part of the missing aircraft, floating for months on ocean currents.

Since then, more parts of the aircraft appear to have washed up on the east coast of Africa, in Tanzania and Mauritius, both confirmed last year as parts of MH370.

Amateur sleuth Blaine Gibson, a trained lawyer from Seattle who has travelled the world trying to solve the MH370 mystery, even acquired fragments of what appear to be burnt panelling found on a beach in Madagascar. He said they hinted that there might have been a fire onboard but authorities have yet to confirm if any of the pieces belong to the missing plane.

The theories

Theories have ranged from sabotage to the personal or psychological problems of the passengers. Electrical failure, fire or a depressurisation event in the cockpit have also been suggested.

Authorities found out Iranian men had used stolen passports to board the plane, and four people had checked in but did not show, but political hijacking was later ruled out.

Much focus has rested on pilots Captain Zaharie Ahmed Shah, 53, and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, who led a crew of 10 others.

Investigators have puzzled over why communication and tracking equipment on the plane was apparently cut off, especially the transponder, a piece of aviation equipment found even on light planes.

Transponders send four-digit identification codes to radar on the ground. And if there was an emergency on board and the pilot was unable to send a radio message, the device is one of the last options to inform the ground of trouble. Crew can send codes, including 7500 for hijack, 7600 for a communications failure and 7700 for an emergency.

But none were used.

The ‘rogue pilot’ theory was given further airtime when Australian officials announced that data recovered from a home-built flight simulator owned by Zaharie showed someone had plotted a course to the southern Indian Ocean.

Yet as the black box that holds flight data recordings has not been discovered, investigators were unable to provide definitive answers. And Malaysian police have not identified a motive following interviews with the crew’s families.

“Simply put, the suicide story is but another story,” Sakinab Shah, the captain’s sister, told the Guardian. “My brother loved life,” she added. “Until and unless we have evidence, tangible evidence, I maintain his innocence.”

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, the author of The Mystery of Malaysia Flight 370, also cautions against focusing too hard on the pilot suicide theory. Satellite data shows that in the final stage of the flight, the aircraft continued on the same track for five hours. “The most logical reason for this is that the flight crew were no longer capable of controlling the aircraft,” she said.

“It’s possible, of course, that someone was sitting there for five hours and simply watched the world go by until the 777 ran out of fuel.” However, she says, there has never been an instance of a commercial pilot intentionally allowing an aircraft to crash itself by running out of power.

The simpler answer, she says, is that the crew encountered an issue, turned back towards Malaysia but did not descend and were overcome by fumes or lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia. At 35,000 feet, the cruising altitude of MH370, the average time of useful consciousness is 30-60 seconds. If the flight crew did not respond immediately to a decompression event, they soon would have been too confused to do so.”

A sudden loss of pressure

Christine Negroni, another aviation enthusiast and author of The Crash Detectives, pointed out that the back up breathing system had just been serviced, which could lead to complications with getting enough oxygen to the masks.

Negroni said one of the pilots, most likely the captain, may have gone to the toilet before the depressurisation and the first officer tried to use the transponder to send the emergency 7700 code but the lack of oxygen to his brain meant “whatever he was thinking, it was not logical”. It’s possible, she says, he turned off the transponder by mistake in his oxygen-starved confusion.

“I don’t think his oxygen mask was working sufficiently,” she said, sharing her book’s findings in Hong Kong late last year.

Would finding the bulk of the wreckage definitively solve these questions?

The black box could make it clear exactly when the flight crew stopped controlling the aircraft and it could reveal if there was a fire on the aircraft. But the time spent in the high pressure environment of the bottom of the ocean means the there is risk that the files are corrupted.

Even a complete and clear cockpit recording might not elucidate why the crew made an initial u-turn off course, one of the biggest mysteries, as the voice recorder model installed on the aircraft only stores two hours of audio.

And Negroni suggests authorities may not be as committed to finding out what went wrong as they appear.

‘Massive efforts have been squandered’

A year before MH370 vanished, she writes, company auditors discovered the airline was not compliant with its own rules. In particular, its fleet of long-haul airliners were not sending data to the ground at frequent-enough intervals.

Auditors, she says, had reported that MH370 should not have been cleared to fly as it could not report its position more often than every 30 minutes.

The claim is one of numerous accusations against Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government that have mired the search in controversy since it started.

The airline and government has not commented on the claims.

In the initial hours of the crash, families endured false hopes, unsubstantiated rumours and shocks as they waited for news of their loved ones.

Within a week of the disappearance, even China’s state news agency, Xinhua, said that “massive efforts have been squandered, and numerous rumours have been spawned, repeatedly racking the nerves of the awaiting families”.

Widow Jennifer Chong says Malaysian Airlines displayed a “remarkable series of blunders that enabled the plane to disappear over Malaysian airspace”.

In particular, she points to Malaysia Airlines insisting the plane was flying over Cambodia when Vietnamese air traffic control sent it a message saying MH370 had not checked in as scheduled. In fact, the plane was thousands of miles away but the airline was relying on a projection of the aircraft’s trajectory instead of the actual transponder data, she says.

“Their false information during the crucial initial hours of the crisis cost us the opportunity to track the plane through primary radar over the Malaysian peninsula,” she said. “These mistakes, when there are lives at stake, are frankly unforgivable.”

The Malaysian government, too, she says showed a strong reluctance to engage with the families, ignoring emails and failing to collect debris found on African coastlines.

‘A very eerie sense of dread’

She has worked with another next of kin, or ‘NOK’ as the family-members call themselves, to organise a trip to Africa.

KS Narendran, known as Naren, works as a business consultant out of Chennei, India. He estimates he spends about an hour a day sifting through reports on MH370, trying to find something that could help explain why he lost his wife of 25 years, Chandrika.

The mother of one was on a trip to Mongolia as executive secretary of an NGO that worked to support fishing communities across the world. MH370 was her connecting flight.

Naren says the trip to Africa at the end of last year — which he did not attend but seven NOKs did — was on “the back of indifference or inaction” from Malaysia. “It became incumbent on us to try and see what we could do,” the 53-year-old said.

The unofficial, self-funded trip had families divided into three groups and physically scour beaches. Within a week, a Chinese relative, Jiang Hui, found a piece of debris that the families think probably came from MH370.

Why was there not a coordinated search of these areas by the government-run investigation, which has cost around US$140m?

“Quite honestly, we’ve been very baffled,” says Naren. “It’s not something that we’ve been able to explain to ourselves.”

And he is further distressed by what, following the announcement the investigation will be suspended, he says is the value of continuing to search for the wreckage in question.

If the mystery of MH370 is not solved, he argues, it could happen again. Only by finding the wreckage can possible design flaws be uncovered. And importantly, he adds, vital information may be uncovered on how a plane can travel through hundreds of miles of airspace without being detected.

“How can an aircraft that must have passed through innumerable radar regions … how can it just be allowed to past through?

“Doesn’t it leave you with a very eerie sense of dread about what might happen?”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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