A year on, lack of hard facts, initial confusion and overnight 'experts' add to fog of uncertainty
KUALA LUMPUR: It’s been exactly a year since Malaysia Airlines’ Flight MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and despite the most extensive search in aviation history, the fate of the Boeing 777 aircraft and the 239 people on board remains a mystery.
While the search led by Australia in the depths of the Indian Ocean continues, how and why a sophisticated aircraft carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew vanished without a trace has piqued the curiosity of many.
The authorities and aviation experts remain baffled. They believe only the plane’s cockpit voice and flight data recorders can shed light on why the plane was diverted from its original path and headed south across the vast Indian Ocean.
The lack of hard facts and the initial confusion when the plane was declared missing gave rise to a flood of anecdotal “evidence” and a crop of overnight aviation “experts” basking in their two minutes of fame.
Numerous conspiracy theories over the fate of flight MH370 have been appearing ever since, with none providing a credible clue on what could have really transpired.
In the run up to the first anniversary of MH370′s disappearance, conspiracy theorists went into overdrive.
The latest was Jeff Wise, a science journalist and author, who claimed that the plane was hijacked on the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin and flown to a remote landing strip in Kazakhstan.
But why would Putin want to hijack a Malaysian plane in the first place?
On March 3, a senior Boeing 777 pilot claimed that flight MH370 was taken on an emotional last farewell ride over the pilot’s home island of Penang, before the pilot ditched the plane into the ocean.
Captain Simon Hardy who came up with this theory, published in Flight International magazine, is based on the initial suspicion that the MH370′s Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah could have turned rogue and deliberately flown the plane off course.
But there is nothing to substantiate this claim.
In December 2014, a former French airline boss Marc Dugain in a six page article in Paris Match claimed that the US might have shot down flight MH370 as it approached the US military base on the Diego Garcia atoll in the western Indian Ocean, fearing a 9/11 style attack on the base.
The US military is said to have covered up the incident.
Immediately, the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur stated that there was no indication that flight MH370 had flown near the US military facility in the first place.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, too, had his own idea: just two months after the plane disappeared, he wrote in his blog that “someone” must have remotely seized control of the aircraft from the pilots.
He based his argument on a supposed patent received by Boeing in 2006 for an “anti-terrorism auto-land system” that, once activated, removed all control from the pilots to return a commercial airliner to a pre-determined landing location. But Dr Mahathir failed to mention who that “someone” could be behind the plot. So back to square one.
Everything on board the plane, including its cargo and passengers, came under suspicion right from the onset.
Conspiracy theorists claimed that the plane was carrying dangerous cargo that caused a fire on board or crippled the plane’s operating systems.
Among the items in the cargo manifest were highly flammable lithium ion batteries. Did the batteries have anything to do with the plane’s fate like the fire in South African Airways’ Flight 295 in 1987?
Other conspiracy theorists focussed on the 20 employees of Freestyle, a Texas based semiconductor manufacturing company; the equipment they were carrying had radar-blocking capabilities developed by the company, thus crippling the plane’s systems, these theorists claimed.
Fingers were also pointed at two Iranians on the passenger list who boarded the plane with forged travel documents. Could they have been terrorists who hijacked the plane to an unknown destination or sabotaged the plane?
But Interpol revealed that the pair had no links with any terrorist groups and were on their way to seek asylum in Europe.
And of course there were the out-of-this-world conspiracy theories. The plane was hijacked by aliens. A Malaysian bomoh claimed the plane was hijacked by elves and was permanently suspended in the air.
Two months after the plane disappeared, Indian film director Rupesh Paul put up a trailer for a film about MH370 at the Cannes Film Festival, to be called “The Vanishing Act: The Untold Story of the Missing Malaysian Plane”.
CNN, which had given the MH370 story its full wall-to-wall treatment, described it tellingly: “If the Cannes Film Festival had an award for most squirm-inducing production, it would surely go to the producers of a new thriller telling the “real” story of the still-missing Malaysian Airlines jet.”
National Geographic turned out a documentary that was more cautious in its approach visualising all possibilities including a catastrophic failure of aircraft systems or structure. But there are not definitive answers.
The confusion in the first days of the aircraft’s disappearance led to parallels with conspiracy theories about the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, mainly that the government had covered up crucial information in the aftermath of the incident.
LOOKING BACK: THE FINAL MOMENTS OF MH370
* Malaysia Airlines’ Flight MH370 departs from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang at 12.41 am to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew. It was a code sharing flight with China Southern Airlines.
At the helm of the Boeing 777-200 ER was veteran pilot Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
The passengers include 153 Chinese nationals, 38 Malaysians, 12 Indonesians, six Australians, three French, four Americans, two from Ukraine, New Zealand and Canada respectively and one each from Russia, Taiwan, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria.
Less than one hour into the flight, as the plane approached the Igari Waypoint, in South China Sea, where it was to be handed over to the Ho Chi Minh City air traffic control, it disappeared from the radar screen.
“Good night Malaysian three seven zero” were the last words spoken from the cockpit. No distress signal received.
Subesequently the plane was tracked by Malaysian military radar as it deviated from its planned flight path and crossed the Malay Peninsula and headed towards the Andaman Sea.
Communications pings between the aircraft and Inmarsat’s satellite network concluded that the flight continued until 8:19 am towards southern Indian Ocean. However, the precise location could not be determined.
A major multinational search was mounted without success. Australia leads the second phase of the search with the cost mounting.
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