Flight MH370: The Vanishing Aircraft That Became Aviation's Biggest Mystery

By Kelly ChoLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:26:49 PM ET
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In an age of technological advances that seem to connect the entire world, it should be impossible for 239 people to simply vanish into thin air. Yet, on March 8, 2014, that's exactly what happened to the passengers and crew of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. More than five years later, the plane's final destination — and how it got there — has never been discovered.

Throughout the course of several ongoing investigations, new evidence has emerged that suggests a shocking portrait of the flight's final moments, but how do you separate fact from fiction? Here’s what we really know about Flight MH370, the vanishing aircraft that became aviation’s biggest mystery

Aviation's Most Impossible Mystery

Using a device small enough to fit into your pocket, it's now possible to access GPS navigation to pinpoint your exact location, browse centuries of knowledge with the tap of a button and have a conversation with someone on another continent. So, is it really possible that a Boeing 777 managed to simply vanish without a trace? Well, not exactly.

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Although many have given up hope of ever recovering the wreckage of flight MH370, researchers have continued to piece together clues about what happened on the plane's last fateful flight. The evidence continues to suggest new theories for how and why the aircraft vanished, but the scenarios it seems to point to are far from comforting.

The Last Known Photo of Passengers Waiting to Board Flight 370

It all began in the dead of night when flight MH370 departed from Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. As 227 men, women and children settled into their seats, they had no way of knowing they would never touch down in Beijing. The flight was scheduled to land at 6:30 a.m. the following morning, but not a single person who boarded the ill-fated aircraft would ever leave its cabin.

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The passengers included citizens from a range of countries across the globe. Many came from China, with smaller numbers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, India, France, the U.S., Iran, Ukraine, Canada, Russia, Taiwan, The Netherlands and New Zealand. All 10 flight attendants were from Malaysia, and the manifest included five children.

The Pilot and the First Officer

The cockpit was manned by the pilot in command, a 53-year-old senior captain named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and Fariq Hamid, the 27-year-old first officer. While Zaharie had enjoyed a long and prestigious career with Malaysia Airlines, Fariq had just worked his way up the ranks, and the flight was supposed to be his final training flight.

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Zaharie had two homes, his own flight simulator and a wife and three adult children. Fariq was a young man in the prime of his life who was reportedly engaged to be married. No one could have imagined when watching them board the aircraft that night that neither man would ever be seen again.

"Good Night. Malaysian Three Seven Zero."

As Fariq flew the airplane up to 35,000 feet, Captain Zaharie handled radio communication. At 1:08 a.m., he reported the plane had reached its cruising altitude as it set out over the South China Sea in the direction of Vietnam. A little over 10 minutes later, as the aircraft prepared to enter Vietnamese airspace, Zaharie checked in one final time with the control team at Kuala Lumpur Center.

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Kuala Lumpur bid the captain goodnight after giving him instructions to transfer his communications to the control tower in Ho Chi Minh City. Captain Zaharie confirmed the transfer with what would be his last known words, "Good night. Malaysian three seven zero."

MH370 Disappears from Radar

Zaharie never checked in with Ho Chi Minh City, and he never answered any of the Vietnamese control team's attempts to make contact with Flight MH370. Less than a minute after the plane entered Vietnamese airspace, all transponder signals radiating from the aircraft stopped transmitting, effectively making the plane "disappear" from radar.

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The air traffic control team in Malaysia didn't notice the flight's disappearance from the map, but the Vietnamese controllers did. They tried repeatedly to make contact with the vanished aircraft, but received nothing but silence in return. It was then they decided to alert Kuala Lumpur that something was very wrong.

False Information in Operations

What happened next has been the subject of a great deal of debate. Whether it was due to incompetence or confusion, the watch supervisor at Kuala Lumpur didn't alert the Kuala Lumpur Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) that the plane was missing until 5:30 a.m., nearly four hours after it disappeared from radar.

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During those four hours, the controllers at Kuala Lumpur contacted the airline's operations center. The center responded that they could "exchange signals with the flight," which appeared to be in Cambodian airspace, although its apparent location made no sense based on MH370's flight plan. They later discovered the information they had used was completely wrong.

The World Learns the Flight Has Been Lost

When the plane failed to touch down in Beijing the next morning, Malaysian Airlines had effectively run out of time. At 7:24 a.m., an hour after the plane's projected landing time, the airline issued a statement explaining that communication with the aircraft had been lost and that the government was currently in the midst of organizing a search-and-rescue operation.

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It didn’t take long for the news to spread around the world, prompting the media to speculate about the possibility of terrorist activity. An international search effort was launched to comb the aircraft's flight path across the South China Sea. At that point, they had no idea they were looking in the entirely wrong area.

The Search Takes an Unexpected Turn

Days later, on March 14th, 2014, The Wall Street Journal published the suspicions of several U.S. investigators who had been looking into the flight's disappearance. The investigation pointed to the fact that although the aircraft may have dropped from the radar, there might still be clues left behind by the automatic satellite signals sent from its onboard systems.

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Such onboard systems are designed to automatically connect with satellites to exchange information while in flight. Researchers believed that if they could determine the location for the last signal the plane sent, it might help them determine where the plane crashed. What they discovered was shocking information that altered the course of the search.

New Evidence Leads to Startling Discoveries

Although investigators had assumed the plane disappeared from radar due to a crash, they discovered the plane had actually remained in the air for hours after its last sighting on radar. Then, the Malaysian government came forward with startling new evidence.

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On March 15, 2014, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak held a press conference that would forever change the nature of the investigation into Flight MH370. Razek confirmed suspicions the plane had not crashed immediately after losing contact were correct. As it turned out, the satellite signals weren't the only evidence the aircraft had flown on long into the night.

The Mystery of the Missing 7 Hours

As it turned out, the Malaysian Air Force had picked up an unidentified aircraft on military radar on the night MH370 disappeared. Razak announced that experts now believed the mystery aircraft was MH370. The Prime Minister confirmed the plane had indeed flown much longer and much farther than previously thought — and in an entirely different direction.

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This raised plenty of questions because the area where the plane had been picked up on military radar was located in the opposite direction of MH370's flight path. This indicated the aircraft had turned around shortly after losing radio contact and continued its flight in a completely unexpected direction. New satellite evidence indicated the plane had remained in flight until 8:11 a.m.

Deliberate Action Confirmed

Razak outlined the implications of the evidence. "These movements are consistent with the deliberate action by someone on the plane," the Prime Minister went on to explain. Not only had all search efforts up to that point been conducted thousands of miles in the wrong direction, but the crash was no accident. The shock was compounded by the fact that the lost days of fruitless searching in the wrong direction had cost searchers the opportunity to spot the initial debris from the plane's wreckage.

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The news left the families of passengers with a whole new set of questions. If MH370 didn’t crash immediately after losing contact, then where had it gone and who had been piloting it?

Search Efforts Mount in a New Direction

For answers, researchers once again turned to the telltale automatic satellite pings, which had been picked up on a satellite over the Indian Ocean. If the plane's communications system had been fully active, the connections would have contained a great deal more information. Under proper working conditions, they would have relayed everything from maintenance reports to in-flight passenger entertainment content between the plane and the satellite.

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Because the system had been deliberately disabled, the satellite only received what amounted to little more than the whispers of an automatic back-up effort. The one valuable clue provided by the pings, however, was a hint of the direction the plane had traveled.

Whispered Satellite Hints

Although the satellite pings couldn’t convey the plane's exact location at the time of contact, they were able to give researchers a few vital hints. By measuring the distance of the plane from the satellite during each ping, researchers were able to construct two possible flight arcs for the aircraft, depending on whether it was flying north or south.

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It was fairly easy to decide the plane had almost certainly traveled south. If it had flown north, it would have been impossible to miss, as the arc passed through several areas highly monitored by military radar.

The True Flight Path Begins to Emerge

According to the data, this meant the flight's final landing place was somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The revelations made using satellite data further backed what the Malaysian military's last radar sighting suggested. Not long after its final contact, the plane had failed to continue along its flight path toward Vietnam. Instead, it had mysteriously turned around and flown back over the border of Malaysia and Thailand.

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Some experts have speculated that flying back over the two zigzagging borders may have helped whoever was piloting the plane evade detection by not fully flying in either nation's airspace. Not long after it appeared on one side of the border, it moved back across to the other.

Reality Begins to Sink In

From there, the missing aircraft appears to have turned again and flown beyond military radar, as it continued its path toward some of the most remote parts of the world’s oceans. It was there, with nothing but miles of endless waves there to bear witness, the plane ultimately ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea.

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On March 24, 2014, Prime Minister Razak held another press conference to officially announce what everyone already suspected was true. In a statement for the press, he stated the crashing of the plane into the Indian Ocean must be accepted as a reality.

Malaysian Airlines Is Forced to Admit Impossibility of Survivors

Malaysia Airlines announced that Flight MH370 had not only crashed, but there was no possibility of survivors. The airline then set about the horrible task of informing the families. Many received the news in person or over the phone, while an unlucky few were notified by text message.

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Although researchers eventually established a more accurate direction for the flight and the area of the crash, the plane’s final wreckage has never been located. As relatives struggled to come to terms with the fact that MH370's passengers would not be found alive, they were still left with a question that was weighing on the minds of the world: Why?

Conspiracy Theories Begin to Fly

When tragedy strikes, there's something intrinsic in the human spirit that demands an explanation. During the initial stages of the investigation into flight MH370, a vast array of conspiracy theories began to circulate on the internet. Tales were spun that blamed everyone from Russian Special Operatives to supernatural forces.

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No matter how unlikely or downright outlandish some theories were, many people still believe the truth lies somewhere in those theories, forever hidden in the shadows. One of the more obvious theories many people found believable during the initial aftermath of the crash focused on the involvement of terrorist hijackers. As investigators pored over the backgrounds of each passenger, two men quickly emerged as possible suspects.

Two Passengers Revealed to Be Traveling on Fake Passports

Investigators discovered two young men on the passenger manifest for MH370 were traveling on stolen passports. Both were of Iranian descent and were eventually revealed to be 19-year-old Pouria Nour Mohammad and 29-year-old Seyed Mohammed Rezar Delawar. Although the world quickly began jumping to conclusions about the two suspects, investigators at Interpol weren't so sure they had anything to do with it.

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"The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it was not a terrorist incident," said Interpol's head, Ronald Noble. Extensive background searches and interviews with family and friends of the two young men revealed no terrorist ties or motives. In fact, as the investigation delved into why the two young men boarded the flight under false names, a very different motivation was revealed.

An Attempt at Asylum Gone Horribly Wrong

As it turned out, the two men were not hijackers but refugees who planned to seek asylum in Europe. One was attempting to meet his mother, who was waiting for him a few connections away in Germany. The other had taken the opportunity to join his friend in the search for a better life.

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Although it’s not impossible the two men — or anyone else on the plane, for that matter — were hijackers, the theory has a unique set of problems. The first issue is the FBI and other international investigative units ultimately cleared all the passengers of any nefarious motives. The second set of clues lies within the plane itself.

The Hijacking Theory Has Some Issues

In a post-9/11 world, aircraft are equipped with fortified cockpit doors, making it incredibly hard to break into the cockpit and get to the pilot. Not only are the doors electronically bolted, but they are monitored by video feeds the pilots can see.

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There's also the fact that the manual deactivation of the plane's transponder signal came less than two minutes after Zaharie’s final radio contact with Kuala Lumpur. Then, there's the plane's abrupt turnaround — which could only have been conducted manually — right as the plane was preparing to enter Vietnamese airspace. This has led many investigators to suspect the threat came from within the cockpit itself.

An Unlikely Suspect Emerges

Before publicly accusing anyone of mass murder — especially someone no longer alive to defend themselves — it should be noted that even the strongest theories today are still just theories. Until the black box or other revealing evidence from MH370 is recovered, it will continue to be impossible to say for sure exactly what happened on the night of March 14, 2014.

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However, as the details of the crash began to unfold, many investigators focused on the only two men they knew for sure had access to the cockpit that night. One was a respected senior airline pilot and the other was a fresh-faced young man on his last training flight.

The Silent Passenger Cabin

The two men did not specifically request to fly together that night, which leads many to believe that it's more likely only one was behind the plane's final nosedive. Even more unnerving, many experts believe it’s likely that by the time the plane made its final descent, only one of the 239 people aboard Flight MH370 was still alive.

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One key piece of the puzzle: With that many passengers on board, how is possible no one was awake to send out a final text or distress call? These answers may be found in the harrowing answer to the question of how someone could kill an entire aircraft full of passengers without ever leaving the cockpit.

Experts Present a Chilling Theory for Mass Murder

In 2018, Australia's 60 Minutes aired an episode featuring a team of experts who attempted to hash out the most likely explanation for the disappearance of Flight MH370. The panel consisted of several aviation specialists, the former ATSB chief who was in charge of the investigation into the flight's disappearance and an oceanographer.

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As the men exchanged their findings, their theories all began to center around one man: Captain Zaharie Ahmad Zaharie. Each expert seemed to corroborate the theory of electrical engineer Mike Exner, as outlined by William Langewiesche in The Atlantic. If the theory holds, then it's possible the plane's captain murdered more than 200 passengers, none of whom had any idea what was happening.

Death by Rapid Depressurization

Exner believes that Zaharie either killed his young first officer or locked him out of the cockpit before performing his infamous U-turn. He speculates that throughout the course of the turn, the pilot climbed the aircraft up to a height of 40,000 feet, which would have rapidly depressurized the cabin.

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Oxygen masks would have dropped to account for the sudden lack of oxygen, but they are only designed for about 15 minutes of use during emergency descents. In a plane flying at such a high altitude, they would have provided little or no help to passengers on board. Langewiesche goes on to point out, "The cockpit, by contrast, was equipped with four pressurized-oxygen masks linked to hours of supply. Whoever depressurized the airplane would have simply had to slap one on."

The Plane's Telltale Turns

Although the effect of the climb would have been lethal, it likely wasn't obvious enough to those on board to raise any alarms until the sudden appearance of the useless oxygen masks. Within minutes, the lack of oxygen would have immobilized the passengers, and they would have slipped into unconsciousness before ultimately dying in their sleep.

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The 60 Minutes' panel of experts pointed to a few other subtle clues that Zaharie may have been behind the tragedy. One man named Simon Hardy — a senior Boeing 777 pilot and instructor — brought up a series of subtle turns the plane made when it appeared on military radar over Penang. Penang, he further elaborated, also happened to be Zaharie’s home town.

A Captain's Final Farewell?

"If you look very carefully, you can see it's actually a turn to the left, and then start a long turn to the right. And then [he does] another left turn. So, I spent a long time thinking about what this could be, what technical reason is there for this, and, after two months, three months thinking about this, I finally got the answer: Someone was looking out the window," Hardy said.

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"Captain Zaharie dipped his wing to see Penang, his home town." Hardy believes the odd flight behavior may have been the actions of a man bidding a final farewell to the home he knew he would never see again.

The FBI Unveils an Unnerving Flight Simulation

The 60 Minutes special led many to believe the truth was finally coming out about the mysterious disappearance of flight MH370, but others pointed out that theories revolving around Captain Zaharie were nothing new. From the beginning of the investigation, the Captain was a prime suspect for many investigators.

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The pilot theory gained an even larger following when various news organizations reported on a deleted flight simulation the FBI had retrieved from Zaharie’s home flight simulator. The simulated flight took an eerily similar path to that of flight MH370, even ending with a crash due to fuel depletion in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Forever Lost at Sea?

Zaharie’s case has not been helped by fellow pilots, who described him as "lonely and sad" and suggested that his marriage was failing at the time of the disappearance. Meanwhile, Zaharie’s family claims that both the rumors of his strained marriage and the infamous flight simulation were fabricated or misinterpreted.

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Although several multi-million dollar investigations have been mounted in an attempt to recover the wreckage of the lost flight, none have managed to uncover the plane's final resting place. Over the years, several pieces of the plane's debris have floated up on the shores of South African beaches and various other parts of the Indian Ocean.

The Haunting Questions of MH370

Although the small pieces of debris have fully confirmed the reality of the plane's crash, they haven’t revealed much information beyond that. Many international investigators and volunteers still hope to recover the remains of the flight's passengers, if only for the sake of their families.

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Many others have given up hope of ever knowing exactly what occurred that night over the dark waters of the Indian Ocean. Was the flight really a tragic murder-suicide by a pilot who had been driven over the edge for reasons unknown? Or was it something equally as sinister that's been expertly covered up for five years?

The Lost Flight's Legacy Lives On

The sad truth is the world may never know the truth. Conspiracy theories continue to abound and probably always will, regardless of how much future evidence comes to light. Some insist the plane was accidentally shot down as part of a military training exercise, while others believe it was the victim of a botched hijacking attempt or an elaborate computer hack.

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Each theory has its flaws, some more obvious than others. What remains certain is the mysterious case of the vanishing aircraft will stay in the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world who may never know what really led to the tragedy of Flight MH370.