As a third piece of debris said to be from doomed Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has been found on La Reunion Island, it is time to ask what the government of Malaysia knew on the night of March 8, 2014 — exactly two years ago today — and why it acted the way it did.
Logic, and careful consideration of the public record, suggests that the motive for the disappearance of flight MH370 almost two years was known in high places of authority in Malaysia on the night the Boeing 777-200ER took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing with 239 people on board.
But why did the plane disappear? And who knew about it?
At the outset, the theories as to what happened to the Malaysia Airlines flight fall into two broad categories.
One category is that a totally unforeseen misadventure overcame the conduct of the flight, which the pilots were unable to deal with, and which was so immediate, catastrophic and comprehensive that no provable record of an emergency call from MH370 has been established.
There are enormous difficulties with that category, given what is known about the diversion of the flight from its intended path while it was over the Gulf of Thailand, but they persist, and however implausible, they cannot be entirely ruled out.
The other category of theory holds on to a common conviction that MH370 was deliberately diverted from its path in an apparently meticulously planned and timed operation by persons unknown, for a purpose unknown, to a destination unknown, after which it intentionally or accidentally switched from a north-westerly or westerly path toward India and central Asia, to one that went south or south-easterly to oblivion in the southern Indian Ocean, west or south-west of Western Australia.
All that is known is that the jet flew for at least seven hours, 38 minutes and that “pings” from an engine maintenance data computer, which had been intentionally disabled but remained on standby mode, were last heard from a southern Indian Ocean place, from where they passed through a communications satellite that had to be about 44 degrees (or so) above the horizon as seen from the 777.
That last ping, part of an emergency rather than standby sequence of signals, was somewhere along the so-called seventh arc of possible locations. It occurred at the time the known fuel load on MH370 should have been exhausted. The block time for MH370 between pushback in KL and terminal pier arrival in Beijing was five hours, 50 minutes, and an endurance of seven hours, 40 minutes was consistent with en-route allowances for diversions, emergencies such as cabin depressurisations, and an arrival carrying no less than minimum legal fuel reserves.
Leaving the ferocious but, alas, often ignorant technical discussion of what these “pings” meant, the issues as to what occurred in Kuala Lumpur before, during and immediately after the flight took place merit continued consideration.
No one is entitled to claim they know categorically and in detail what exactly happened — and how and why — to MH370 and the souls on board.
On the available evidence mainly from the interim International Civil Aviation Organization accident report eventually released on May 1, 2014, we learn that hardly any efforts were made to contact the crew by cockpit satellite phone after the air traffic control transponder on the jet ceased functioning 39 minutes after takeoff.
There were attempted radio communications, and there is one unverified report of a mumbling response — possibly from MH370 — but actual ground-to-cockpit satellite phone calls, without using other jets as intermediaries, are inexplicably few.
They followed that moment when the jet, briefly in the no-man’s land between the air traffic control (ATC) zones of Malaysia and Vietnam, abruptly stopped being a transponder-identified flight. MH370 diverted westwards and was picked up as an unidentified object by military radars, although that was not made clear until some days later, after an extraordinary episode of disclosures and denials by various sources.
The seeming indifference of Malaysia Airlines and the KL authorities to the disappearance on ATC screens of an airliner with 239 people onboard is perplexing to say the least. In the words of a major airline’s emergency responders, “we would have hit all the buttons until our fingertips bled”.
There is no evidence that Malaysia Airlines or anyone in authority called every ship under or near the flight path of MH370. There were no calls to kampongs, police outposts, resorts, or any centre of activity, where something like a sudden explosion or fireball in the sky might have been noticed.
Malaysia Airlines does not appear to have considered casting a wide net. It didn’t even activate the Kuala Lumpur Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre until the jet was due to have pulled up to the gate in Beijing, five hours and 50 minutes after takeoff, and more than five hours after it was obvious to blind Freddy that something terrible had happened.
Had there been repeated, persistent sat phone calls made, even the act of their ringing out unanswered would have provided more detailed clues as to the direction and potential location of MH370 through the fraught Doppler shift analysis that was to conclude that for much of the remaining flight the 777 flew southerly, away from the trajectory it was taking when said to be last seen on military radar off the coast of southern Thailand.
What did Malaysia Airlines already know at that time, or was it truly indifferent and callous to the overnight loss of an airliner?
There is no modern era loss of an airliner comparable to that of MH370 that elicited so little reaction from an airline or the responsible authorities in the records on various air safety archives. What did KL know?
We did find out, on May 1, 2014, that it knew on March 8 that the jet had diverted across the Malaysia Peninsula. That casual revelation by the-then acting minister for aviation, Hishammuddin Hussein, means that Malaysia deliberately lied to its then-extensive collection of air and sea search partners about what it knew for many days, diluting resources deployed and wasting valuable time.
An incisive factual insight into the inability of KL to come clean with its early-stage search partners is documented in this Wall Street Journal story on March 20, 2014.
The logical implication of the behavior of the airline, civil aviation department, and the government of Malaysia on the night of March 8, 2014, is that they knew of a reason why one of the national carrier’s flights disappeared from the ATC system, and lied about it.
But could other factors be at play? Accountability of authority in Malaysia is less practised than in many other democracies. It could be compared to being like any large corporation with an anal approach to message management, or almost any Western or non-Western government agency, in which nothing that happens is ever confirmed or admitted until the “owners” of the message approve it.
If a threat had been made of a generalised nature to the Malaysia Airlines fleet and had been ignored, the internal motive for retention of that awful and, legally, profoundly damaging information would be very strong.
The secretiveness of KL in the early stages of this saga didn’t really crack until sufficient time had elapsed for large items of floating debris, like bodies, seats, suit cases and maybe even emergency slides had largely joined the marine food chain or sunk, and been increasingly dispersed.
The search for MH370 remains a long way from locating the two bright orange “black box” data and voice recorders, or, perhaps crucially, the phone or tablet memory chips that might provide graphic insights into what happened before their owners were consigned by fate, and evil, to depths where there is no time, no day and no night.