This past weekend was shaping up to be something of a leave-taking for the MH370 story. The anniversary of the plane’s disappearance on Sunday offered a natural hook for media to dish out a round of shoulder-shrugging features. Given that the search of the seabed is looking ever more futile, with the scheduled endpoint coming in May and no backup plan in the offing, it looked likely that the mystery would slowly fade out into the great sea of things we used to care about.
Then, on Sunday morning East Coast time, the Malaysian government unleashed the biggest data dump in the case to date. Checking in at nearly 600 pages, “Factual Information: Safety Investigation for MH370” covers everything from aircraft maintenance records and cargo pallet diagrams to flight simulator sessions and communications logs. All at once, a day that was supposed to be a rampdown turned out to be very exciting. And while the community of MH370 obsessives is still struggling to make sense of the material, certain key revelations already cast a new light on the current theories about MH370.
There are fewer of these, by the way, than most people realize. As recently as last week, Reuters ran a piece describing seven theories; CNN published one describing five. These stories don’t distinguish, however, between mere flights of fancy, which have been concocted without reference to anything we actually know, and testable scientific hypotheses grounded in the facts. By the latter definition, I count only three.
The first one, which I’ll called Suicide Pilot, imagines that the pilot locked himself in the cockpit and flew the plane into the southern ocean. This is, at present, the default scenario; on Saturday, the New York Times wrote a long story outlining its merits. The second theory, the Spoof, proposes that the plane was taken by a highly sophisticated hijack and flown north to Kazakahstan, as I outlined in this magazine last month. The third I’ll call Hero Pilot. It’s a version of a scenario laid out last March by Chris Goodfellow, who suggested that an accidental fire (or maybe unexpected depressurization) had rendered the pilots unconscious, so that the plane flew on into the southern ocean as a ghost plane. This idea was revisited last weekend at the Daily Beast by Clive Irving.
That’s it. These are the only three options that are currently making the rounds. If other scenarios are conceivable, no one is actively articulating them. These three theories all match the data to one degree or another, but they all have gaping holes. It’s like a baby beauty contest where all the contestants are ugly. The question is, which baby is the least ugly?
Going in, Hero Pilot was already running a distant third, and the new report didn’t do it any favors. One long-standing problem is the incredibly short timing between the perfectly normal signoff by the plane at 17:19 — “Good Night, Malaysia 370” — and the loss of all communications just two minutes later. It’s hard to imagine a runaway fire knocking out all the radio gear that quickly, yet leaving the satellite communication and most of the plane’s other electronics untouched and the airframe in sound enough condition to fly for seven more hours. Yes, a 180-degree turn back to Peninsular Malaysia would be consistent with pilots in distress. But the new report put another nail in this theory’s coffin when it revealed that the plane subsequently flew at 529 knots as it made its getaway run across the Malayan Peninsula — meaning that whoever was at the controls wasn’t trying to bring the plane down for an emergency landing, but had put the pedal to the metal.
Of the two remaining contenders, the dominant Suicide Pilot suffered the most from the new report. The first blow comes in section 1.5, which provides a psychological assessment of captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. In the immediate aftermath of the disappearance, Zaharie had been portrayed as a man whose marriage was crumbling and who was deeply embittered by the persecution of his political hero. But according to the report: “The Captain’s ability to handle stress at work and home was good. There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability. There were no significant changes in his life style, interpersonal conflict or family stresses.”
A second blow came in the form of technical information surrounding the satellite communication system. Early in the case, it was generally assumed that the pilot had shut off the radios and the transponder and disabled ACARS — or, Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System — but left the satcom system working because he didn’t know that, when left unused, it would continue to send hourly signals to Inmarsat that could later be used to track the plane’s location. In May, however, Malaysia released a preliminary report that showed that the satcom had been turned off, and then back on again. This was surprising — why on earth would anyone go through the trouble of doing that, least of all a suicidal pilot? — but what was revealed in Sunday’s report was even more bizarre. It turns out that the pilot didn’t turn the satcom off the easy way, by issuing the command through the touch-screen in the cockpit. By process of elimination, he must either have descended into the electronics bay (difficult to do if he’d locked himself into the cockpit) or shut down a major chunk of the plane’s electrical system using switches in the cockpit (a maneuver few airplane pilots know how to do).
This oddity, as well as another anomaly — the fact that the aircraft sent a flight I.D. number when it logged on to Inmarsat on the ground in Kuala Lumpur, but not when it logged back on mid-flight — are both consistent with the satcom tampering that lies at the heart of the Spoof theory. And, in my reading at least, I didn’t see any new evidence in Sunday’s report that made my hypothesis look any worse. Make no mistake, the Spoof is an ugly baby. It’s not clear how a plane traveling north could have evaded military radar detection in each of the countries it passed over, and it’s not clear how it could have flown as fast and as far as it did without running out of fuel. But to my eye, Sunday’s disclosure made it more attractive in comparison to its competitors. The game plays on.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the report is how much it gives us MH370 obsessives to chew over. I’d imagined that after this last wave of media interest, I would go back to my normal life as I’d led it pre–March 8, 2014. This new document, however, presents a whole host of new riddles, ones I’ll find hard to simply step away from.
Here’s one: The report says that after the plane went dark and pulled its 180, controllers in Vietnam called their Malaysian counterparts to check why the plane hadn’t arrived in their airspace. The Malaysian controllers told the Vietnamese that the plane was flying over Cambodia. This delayed the onset of the search and rescue operation, obviously, but more to the point, why did they say it? Where was their information coming from?
Sunday’s document alludes to another, to come at some point in the future: a final accident report, which presumably will lay out everything and anything that investigators know about the most bizarre aviation mystery of all time. When it will come is as yet unknown. If it’s as complete as it should be, we might finally get all the clues we need.