Relatives of passengers on MH370 gather outside the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office
It should have been a routine red-eye departure from Kuala Lumpur a year ago this Sunday when Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 took off at 12.41am local time for a five-hour, 50-minute flight to Beijing with at least 239 people on board.
As with any such flight in the middle of the night, many of the experienced flyers on board would have eschewed the dinner service and settled down to sleep as best they could, some no doubt taking advantage of empty seats here and there.
By the time MH370 abruptly vanished from regular air traffic control screens some 40 minutes later over the Gulf of Thailand, those who opted for drinks and a meal ought to have been in the middle of that service.
The aisles should have been busy with trolleys, and up front, in the premium seats, part of the service would have involved walking over or near an insecure but inconspicuous floor hatch, which, if pulled open, would reveal a short ladder leading down into an electrical and electronics bay under the cockpit.
Because of anomalies in the way a computer on the jet continued to send stand-by signals to an Inmarsat communications satellite during the entire seven hours and 38 minutes MH370 was in the air, many strongly suspect this bay was tampered with — twice.
It was just before 1.08am when the normal functioning of the periodic Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System engine-performance monitoring system cut out, some 27 minutes after the 12.41 am wheels-up, Malaysia time.
Some 77 minutes later, about 2.25am, a temporary interruption to the jet’s power supply seems to have triggered an automatic unscheduled “ready to log in” signal from the ACARS server on-board the jet to the Inmarsat, which relayed messages from the Boeing wide-body airliner to the Rolls-Royce engine-monitoring centre in the UK.
But, we don’t know what actually happened in the cabin after takeoff, including when the jet sharply veered off-course, shortly after the voice of the co-pilot is heard telling Malaysia airspace control, “Good night Malaysia Three Seven Zero”, followed by its two identifying transponders falling silent, right in the gap between exiting Malaysian air space and its flight-planned entrance into Vietnam’s airspace.
We don’t know if people were told to stay buckled up because of impending turbulence. We don’t know if anyone confiscated mobile devices that might have recorded images of the action as alarm spread that the flight wasn’t a normal red-eye. Phones might have been used in attempts to call for help, although there is no evidence any such calls took place.
We might find out the answers to such questions if the flight data recorder (FDR) is ever found, as it would run much longer than the limited-duration cockpit voice recorder facility (CVR) and thus preserve vital channels, including such mundane things as the playing of recorded flight announcements, and the time of the opening and shutting of the locks on the cockpit door. The FDR might even provide clues as to who came and went.
We might see something really critical on the phones of the passengers, if they are ever recovered from the depths of the vast southern Indian Ocean where almost everyone with technical knowledge relevant to the aircraft — its systems, and its residual interactions with the Inmarsat geosynchronous satellite parked over the equator above the western Indian Ocean — has concluded that its wreckage must lie. Which is arguably a vastly bigger problem — given the amount of ocean and variable factors and assumptions involved in its being searched — than the lies and evasions of the Malaysian government that misled the search partners, including Australia, into the early wasting of resources and efforts for reasons unknown.
As documented in the MH370 archives of Plane Talking, the acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein admitted in a Facebook post on May 1 last year, when an interim report into the loss was grudgingly released, that the Malaysian cabinet knew the jet had abruptly changed course and flown across the Malay Peninsula and then toward the Andaman Sea, where it was last tracked by the country’s air force at 29,500 feet west of Phuket, on the morning of its disappearance.
Yet 12 days later, on March 20, Hussein was still insisting that the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere “arcs” were search areas of equal importance.
(The satellite heard an abnormal attempt at a log-in when it had to be about 40 degrees above the horizon as seen by MH370 at 8.19am KL time. The line tracing all the locations that conformed to that satellite elevation within the fuel limitations of the jet has been called the seventh — and last — arc. The incomplete stand-by sequence ends seven hours and 38 or 39 minutes after MH370 took off, and fits a scenario where it had exhausted its fuel, causing a power failure that triggered the deployment of a a ram air turbine, which popped out of the fuselage and, like a mini windmill, generated the power used to send an urgent log-in call to the satellite, which ended on impact.)
This insistence of Kuala Lumpur on search priorities known internally to be false persisted for eight days after the White House, on March 12, said it had reason to believe the jet had crashed west to south-west of Perth.
There are signs in the public record of reports soon after that statement in Washington DC that the United States, India and China had become increasingly exasperated with the unreliability of the official and often changing narratives being provided by Kuala Lumpur.
The unanswered but now glaringly important question is: who or what was KL trying to protect by taking such a wilfully misleading stance at the very outset of this baffling mystery?
We don’t know if one or both pilots, or neither, was involved in the disappearance of MH370. We don’t know if any other party was involved. All we know with certainty is that Malaysia lied about the incident, and that this implies that it is concealing the truth for reasons unknown.
There are suggestions that an extraordinary and short-lived fire somehow depressurised the 777 and left the pilots so engaged in trying to save the jet that they never said a word, nor answered the two sat-phone calls Malaysia Airlines says it made after the jet went dark and apparently silent, shortly after it reached a point over the Gulf of Thailand headed for Vietnam and then on to Beijing.
But that doesn’t explain the actions of the government and its authorities in setting out to mislead the world at the outset as to what it knew about the flight between the loss of transponder signals and the last radar trace off Phuket. It doesn’t explain the astonishingly resigned attitude of Malaysia Airlines to the loss of contact.
The response by any credible airline after a flight suddenly vanishes is to be incredibly persistent in trying to contact it by any means; by sat phone, by calls to other airliners that would have been in the vicinity, by persistent inquiries among other adjacent air traffic control areas, to shipping, to police in coastal villages, and on and on and on, until that terrible moment when the fuel on the jet must have run out.
But with MH370? Just a few calls, according to the official narrative, including to other flights, with officially no result, and some of them were made remarkably late — and given inconsistent timings by officials who were either lying or ignorant. The indifference of Malaysia Airlines to finding out what had happened to 239 souls in the early hours of March 8, 2014, is utterly callous and unforgivable. They should have been hitting the phones until their fingertips bled. Their conduct, going on their own disclosures, was unspeakably deficient in every regard.
If they were calling MH370 every minute, calling Vietnam and Thai ATC every minute, and ringing every kampong, town, city, ship, and other plane every minute, as they should have been, why didn’t they say so?
We are left with the most appalling and shameful and inexplicable indifference in the history of modern aviation on the occasion of a sudden loss of contact, propped up by vicious official lying that suckered the Australian government as well as most of the media and above all those who lost their loved ones.
No trace of MH370 has been found. Not washed up on coastlines, not on the ocean floor, and not anymore floating on the surface.
However, there were traces of floating objects found by satellite, especially a semi-secret French radar satellite about a week after MH370 vanished, and some of the objects seen by the early aerial search, based mainly out of Perth, may indeed have been from the jet, but those leads were abandoned on March 28 because of a “new lead” from Malaysia. (The search effort also backed away from other visual leads on March 24.)
We just don’t know, but with hindsight, the Malaysian authorities seemed unduly hasty in telling Australia, which had taken over the management of a search that fell inside its internationally defined search-and-rescue area, to pull the ships and, at that stage, aircraft out of the area to a more northern location.
At the time, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said it had received “a credible lead from Malaysia that MH370 had been flying faster and lower than previously assumed”, shifting the search priority north by around 600 kilometres.
That was an astonishingly large and abrupt abandonment of a promising site. The French satellite radar returns came off solid objects. Most likely it was debris from shipping, but we didn’t check it out thoroughly.
This situation, of a suspect and untrustworthy executive branch in Kuala Lumpur influencing the Australian search efforts, persists to this day, with the Minister responsible for aviation Warren Truss first telling Reuters that the search might have to be called off soon, and then denying it.
While that is a matter between the Minister and the wire service, Australia has been publicly dropping hints for some time that it might need to consider winding up the search come May, when the “priority areas” south-west of Perth have finally been explored at sufficient resolution to locate a debris field.
This week the four ships carrying out search contracts with their variously towed or autonomous scanning devices have even been retracing their previous scan tracks in some instances, presumably in case there really was something that needed a closer look, as documented by US-based ship tracker Mike Chillit (Twitter @MikeChillit).
The lack of progress and transparency in the MH370 mystery has created a black void as dark as the sunless depths of the south Indian Ocean, which is being filled by suppositions and suspicions as to what happened and why.
Some of them raise real causes for concern, including the possibility that the truth might be both known and unacceptable in high places.