Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappeared in mid-flight book

The plane that vanished into thin air: Seven years after Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappeared mid-flight, no black box or definitive wreckage has ever been found… and now a new book claims a cover up

  • Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing vanished in 2014
  • First plane to disappear without explanation since Amelia Earhart in 1939
  • Florence de Changy covered disappearance for French newspaper Le Monde 
  • In a new book, she examines the information surrounding the mystery  

REPORTAGE

THE DISAPPEARING ACT 

by Florence de Changy (Mudlark £14.99, 432pp)

On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, as it did every evening.

When it crossed over into Vietnamese airspace, the co-pilot said goodbye to Malaysian air traffic control, as is normal, but did not say hello to the Vietnamese equivalent, as is very much not normal. It took everyone a while to realise that MH370 had simply disappeared from sight.

This is harder than it sounds. There are certain tracking devices in every aeroplane that would need to have been switched off, or disabled, for it to vanish — and they had been.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it vanished in 2014. Pictured: The missing aircraft taking off in France in 2011

 

Vietnamese air traffic control would have to be very sleepy not to notice that a plane that flew over their territory every evening wasn’t there tonight. It took them 17 crucial minutes to do so. 

Eventually they worked out that the plane, which had been flying roughly north-north-east, had taken a sharp turn and headed off west. And that was the last that was ever heard of it.

It was the first plane to disappear entirely without explanation since Amelia Earhart in 1939.

The case galvanised the world’s media to a fevered flurry of speculation. Had it been hijacked? Had the captain gone mad and run amok? Had there been a fire on board? Who were the two Iranian passengers with fake Austrian and Italian passports? If the plane had crashed, where was the wreckage?

Florence de Changy is a Far-Eastern correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde, and she covered the case in detail. From the beginning she was astonished by the incompetence of the Malaysian authorities, by their blatant disregard for truth and obvious desire not to tell anyone anything of importance.

A Boeing 777 flaperon cut down to match the one from flight MH370 found on Reunion island off the coast of Africa in 2015, is lowered into water to discover its drift characteristics by Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation researchers in Tasmania

Far-Eastern correspondent for Le Monde, Florence de Changy investigates the mystery in a new tome. Pictured: Catherine Gang, whose husband Li Zhi was on Flight MH370

The details of what happened were reconstituted by trial and error, and ‘assembled like a jigsaw puzzle over subsequent weeks, months and years, in the light of information that was released in dribs and drabs, for the most part diluted in an ocean of false or inaccurate data’.

This is a long book, but there’s no padding. De Changy is a remarkably thorough researcher who clearly became as fixated with the case as any of the MH370 obsessives she met via the internet. People often say that non-fiction books read like fast-moving thrillers, but this one genuinely does.

The Iranian passengers turned out to have bought their forged passports in Thailand. Malaysia Airlines refused, ‘for security reasons’, to explain how travellers with forged passports had been able to buy tickets. Interpol said they were not known terrorists. Apparently Iranians do this all the time, to avoid being identified as Iranian at airports. The lead fizzled out, having been the focus of all the news coverage for 48 hours.

Malaysian Minister of Transport Anthony Loke (centre) looks at the wing flap found on Pemba Island, Tanzania, in 2019 which has been identified a missing part of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

Grace Subathirai Nathan, daughter of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 passenger Anne Daisy, shows a piece of debris believed to be from flight MH370 during a press conference in Putrajaya in 2018

Later, a search-and-rescue mission was set up in the Indian Ocean – and Australia, the nearest land mass, was in charge

Next up was the pilot, who became the victim of a concerted smear campaign. One source said he was divorced. Another said his wife and children had moved out of the family home the day before the flight. A third said he was a political fanatic. There were reports that his diary was blank past the date of March 8. All untrue.

‘He was even discovered to have “distant relatives in Pakistan”, as though this alone would make him, if not culpable, at least suspicious.’

Meanwhile, a technology company in London said that the plane’s path could be determined by tracing ‘handshake pings’, silent electromagnetic signals sent to the plane even after they had turned their tracking machines off.

Unfortunately, these ‘pings’ weren’t designed for finding lost planes and no one had done it before. The number-crunching was vast, but the company did the calculations and determined that the plane had actually headed south towards the Indian Ocean.

THE DISAPPEARING ACT by Florence de Changy (Mudlark £14.99, 432pp)

Purely on the basis of this very shaky evidence, a search-and-rescue mission was set up in the Indian Ocean, even though the area to be searched was huge and essentially unsearchable. Australia, the nearest land mass, was in charge. Their window of opportunity was small, as the plane’s black boxes, which emitted their own beeps, would switch off after 30 days. It turned out much later that the battery in one of them had actually died more than a year earlier, and no one had bothered to change it.

The operation was ruinously expensive (£103 million) and an abject failure. Literally nothing was found, not even a seatbelt. ‘When it came to the art of bungling a search operation and providing deliberate or accidental misinformation, Australia ran Malaysia pretty close,’ writes de Changy brutally.

Chunks of dead plane started to turn up on beaches across the region. The best hope was a flaperon (what they now call ailerons), which washed up on the shore of Reunion Island near Madagascar. The French, who were investigating as Reunion is one of theirs, said they were ‘almost certain’ it came from MH370.

The Malaysian prime minister, who came across as slightly shadier than Don Vito Corleone, announced his certainty that it had come from MH370. But the flaperon had lost its ID plate, and they are so securely attached it really shouldn’t have done. De Changy found out that ID plates are routinely removed when airport parts are recycled, so the flaperon could have come from any old plane. She thinks it might even have been planted there.

Why did everyone lie? Because although the Malaysians didn’t actually want the puzzle solved for reasons that will become clear if you read the book, they wanted it to be seen to have been solved, so they could forget about it. France was trying to sell arms to Malaysia, and was happy to oil the wheels. The French report on the mysterious flaperon was never published, needless to say.

You’ll have noticed I haven’t told you what de Changy thinks actually happened, because that would be like giving away the end of a novel. Unlike normal air flights, though, it’s not the destination that matters here, it’s the journey. De Changy writes with great wit and a constant bubbling pool of rage, as well she might. This is a splendid book — and highly recommended.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MH370? SOME OF THE THEORIES INTO THE MYSTERY EXAMINED

Zaharie Ahmad Shah (pictured) was the pilot of the doomed flight

DID THE PILOT HIJACK HIS OWN PLANE? 

Pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah planned mass murder because of personal problems, locking his co-pilot out of the cockpit, closing down all communications, depressurising the main cabin and then disabling the aircraft so that it continued flying on auto-pilot until it ran out of fuel.

That was the popular theory in the weeks after the plane’s disappearance. 

His personal problems, rumours in Kuala Lumpur said, included a split with his wife Fizah Khan, and his fury that a relative, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, had been given a five-year jail sentence for sodomy shortly before he boarded the plane for the flight to Beijing.

But the pilot’s wife angrily denied any personal problems and other family members and his friends said he was a devoted family man and loved his job.

This theory was also the conclusion of the first independent study into the disaster by the New Zealand-based air accident investigator, Ewan Wilson.

Wilson, the founder of Kiwi Airlines and a commercial pilot himself, arrived at the shocking conclusion after considering ‘every conceivable alternative scenario’.

However, he has not been able to provide any conclusive evidence to support his theory.

The claims are made in the book ‘Goodnight Malaysian 370’, which Wilson co-wrote with the New Zealand broadsheet journalist, Geoff Taylor.

It’s also been rumoured that Zaharie used a flight simulator at his home to plot a path to a remote island.

However, officials in Kuala Lumpur declared that Malaysian police and the FBI’s technical experts had found nothing to suggest he was planning to hijack the flight after closely examining his flight simulator. 

And there are also theories that the tragic disappearance may have been a heroic act of sacrifice by the pilot.

Australian aviation enthusiast Michael Gilbert believes the doomed plane caught fire mid-flight, forcing the pilot to plot a course away from heavily populated areas. 

IF NOT THE PILOT, WAS THE CO-PILOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE MYSTERY?

Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, again for personal problems, was suspected by rumour-spreaders to have overpowered the pilot and disabled the aircraft, flying it to its doom with crew and passengers unable to get through the locked cockpit door.

Theorists have put forward the suggestion that he was having relationship problems and this was his dramatic way of taking his own life.

But he was engaged to be married to Captain Nadira Ramli, 26, a fellow pilot from another airline, and loved his job. There are no known reasons for him to have taken any fatal action.

There have been a series of outlandish theories about the disappearance of the plane

Others have suggested that because he was known to have occasionally invited young women into the cockpit during a flight, he had done so this time and something had gone wrong.

Young Jonti Roos said in March that she spent an entire flight in 2011 in the cockpit being entertained by Hamid, who was smoking.

Interest in the co-pilot was renewed when it was revealed he was the last person to communicate from the cockpit after the communication system was cut off. 

DID THE RUSSIANS STEAL MH370 AND FLY THE JET TO KAZAKHSTAN

An expert has claimed the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was hijacked on the orders of Vladimir Putin and secretly landed in Kazakhstan.

Jeff Wise, a U.S. science writer who spearheaded CNN’s coverage of the Boeing 777-200E, has based his outlandish theory on pings that the plane gave off for seven hours after it went missing, that were recorded by British telecommunications company Inmarsat.

Wise believes that hijackers ‘spoofed’ the plane’s navigation data to make it seem like it went in another direction, but flew it to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is leased from Kazakhstan by Russia.

However, Wise admits in New York Magazine that he does not know why Vladimir Putin would want to steal a plane full of people and that his idea is somewhat ‘crazy’.

Wise also noted there were three Russian men onboard the flight, two of them Ukrainian passport holders.

Aviation disaster experts analysed satellite data and discovered – like the data recorded by Inmarsat – that the plane flew on for hours after losing contact.

Careful examination of the evidence has revealed that MH370 made three turns after the last radio call, first a turn to the left, then two more, taking the plane west, then south towards Antarctica.

MH370 WAS USED BY TERRORISTS FOR A SUICIDE ATTACK ON THE CHINESE NAVY

This extraordinary claim came from 41-year-old British yachtsman Katherine Tee, from Liverpool, whose initial account of seeing what she thought was a burning plane in the night sky made headlines around the world.

On arrival in Thailand’s Phuket after sailing across the Indian Ocean from Cochin, southern India with her husband, she said: ‘I could see the outline of the plane – it looked longer than planes usually do.There was what appeared to be black smoke streaming from behind.’

Ms Tee’s general description of the time and place was vague and she lost all credibility when she later stated on her blog that she believed MH370 was a kamikaze plane that was aimed at a flotilla of Chinese ships and it was shot down before it could smash into the vessels.

Without solid proof of the satellite data, she wrote on her blog, Saucy Sailoress, the plane she saw was flying at low altitude towards the military convoy she and her husband had seen on recent nights. She added that internet research showed a Chinese flotilla was in the area at the time.

While the debris proved the plane went down in the Indian Ocean, the location of the main underwater wreckage — and its crucial black box data recorders — remains stubbornly elusive. 

THE JET LANDED ON THE WATER AND WAS SEEN FLOATING ON THE ANDAMAN SEA  

On a flight from Jeddah to Kuala Lumpur that crossed over the Andaman Sea on March 8, Malaysian woman Raja Dalelah, 53, saw what she believed was a plane sitting on the water’s surface.

She didn’t know about the search that had been started for MH370. She alerted a stewardess who told her to go back to sleep.

‘I was shocked to see what looked like the tail and wing of an aircraft on the water,’ she said.

It was only when she told her friends on landing in Kuala Lumpur what she had seen that she learned of the missing jet. She had seen the object at about 2.30pm Malaysian time.

She said she had been able to identify several ships and islands before noticing the silver object that she said was a plane.

But her story was laughed off by pilots who said it would have been impossible to have seen part of an aircraft in the water from 35,000ft or seven miles.

Ms Raja filed an official report with police the same day and has kept to her story.

‘I know what I saw,’ she said.

THE AIRCRAFT SUFFERED A CATASTROPHIC SYSTEMS FAILURE AND CRASH-LANDED ON THE OCEAN

A catastrophic event such as a fire disabling much of the equipment resulted in the pilots turning the plane back towards the Malaysian peninsula in the hope of landing at the nearest airport.

Satellite data, believable or not, suggests the aircraft did make a turn and theorists say there would be no reason for the pilots to change course unless confronted with an emergency.

A fire in a similar Boeing 777 jet parked at Cairo airport in 2011 was found to have been caused by a problem with the first officer’s oxygen mask supply tubing.

Stewarts Law, which has litigated in a series of recent air disasters, believes the plane crashed after a fire – similar to the blaze on the Cairo airport runway – broke out in the cockpit.

After an investigation into the Cairo blaze, Egypt’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Central Directorate (EAAICD) released their final report which revealed that the fire originated near the first officer’s oxygen mask supply tubing.

The cause of the fire could not be conclusively determined, but investigators pinpointed a problem with the cockpit hose used to provide oxygen for the crew in the event of decompression.

Following the 2011 fire, US aircraft owners were instructed to replace the system – it was estimated to cost $2,596 (£1,573) per aircraft. It was not known whether Malaysia Airlines had carried out the change.

If either pilot wanted to crash the plane, why turn it around? So the turn-around suggests they were trying to land as soon as possible because of an emergency.

THE US SHOT DOWN THE AIRCRAFT FEARING A TERROR ATTACK ON DIEGO GARCIA  

The Boeing 777 was shot down by the Americans who feared the aircraft had been hijacked and was about to be used to attack the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia atoll in the Indian Ocean. So conspiracy theorists claim.

And former French airline director Marc Dugain said he had been warned by British intelligence that he was taking risks by investigating this angle.

There is no way of checking whether Dugain received such a warning or why he believes the Americans shot down the plane.

But adding to the theory that the aircraft was flown to Diego Garcia, either by the pilot Zaharie or a hijacker, was the claim that on the pilot’s home flight simulator was a ‘practice’ flight to the island.

Professor Glees said: ‘The Americans would have no interest in doing anything of the kind and not telling the world.

‘In theory, they might wish to shoot down a plane they thought was attacking them but they wouldn’t just fire missiles, they’d investigate it first with fighters and would quickly realise that even if it had to be shot down, the world would need to know.’

Mr Rosenschein said: ‘The U.S. would not have been able to hide this fact and in any event, if it were true, they would have admitted their action as it would have prevented a successful terrorist action on this occasion and acted as a deterrent for future terrorist attacks.’ 

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