March 13, 2023

On March 8, 2014, at around 1:20am, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished from radar screens just off the coast of Malaysia, never to be seen again. Nine years later, the Boeing 777’s disappearance remains the most astonishing, and terrifying, mystery in aviation history. In this age of constant real-time monitoring of everything that moves through the skies, in which even an unidentified balloon can cause the scrambling of fighter jets, how could a massive high-tech airliner carrying 239 people vanish into thin air?

Several experts have tried to answer this question — many of whom are featured in a new three-part Netflix documentary, MH370: The Plane That Disappeared. According to the official narrative, outlined by Malaysian and Western authorities, around 40 minutes after take-off, 90 miles off the east coast of Malaysia, someone on the plane — most likely the captain — turned off its electronic communication signals, causing it to disappear from Air Traffic Control (ATC) radars. The plane, they say, then made a U-turn, flew back across the Malay Peninsula, veered north up the Malacca Strait, rounded the Indonesian island of Sumatra, eventually turned south and then flew in a straight path for around six hours — at which point it ran out of fuel and crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia. If this is really what happened, we are talking about one of the slowest, most bizarre mass murder-suicides in history.

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There are, however, several problems with this narrative, as the French journalist Florence de Changy, who has been covering the Asia-Pacific for the past 30 years for Le Monde and RFI, explains in the documentary, and in much greater detail in her 2021 book The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370, the result of a seven-year investigation.

The official account hinges on two pieces of evidence: Malaysian military radar data, which tracked the plane deviating westward, and analysis of the automatic communication “pings” between the aircraft and a satellite operated by a British company called Inmarsat, which provides satellite communication services to a wide range of private and institutional clients, including the US government and military. Inmarsat concluded that the plane subsequently flew south until around the time of its last ping (though it couldn’t provide the exact location of the last communication, because the data didn’t have GPS-tracking capabilities).

Both pieces of evidence, however, have been called into question. Firstly, as the Malaysian authorities’ final investigation report acknowledged, the data behind its military radar sighting is inconsistent with the capability of a B777 in terms of speed, altitude and height variations. Moreover, the radar images supposedly showing MH370 flying back over Malaysia were never made public. Likewise, none of the countries that MH370 is claimed to have flown over or close to — Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Australia — have provided radar evidence of the plane in their airspace. As de Changy writes: “Not a single raw radar image has been shown to support the route taken by MH370 according to the official version” (this piece of information was missing in the documentary).

One may also ask why the Malaysian military didn’t scramble jets at the sight of a rogue plane flying over national airspace, especially considering that MH370 is said to have passed right over the Butterworth Air Force Base in Penang, the headquarters for the Integrated Air Defence system of the Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA), which includes the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. There was also a massive presence of the US Seventh Fleet — which is based in Japan and has 50-70 ships and submarines, 150 aircraft and 20,000 sailors — in the region at the time of the plane’s disappearance. According to a senior member of the intelligence services de Changy spoke to, there were two US “AWACS” in the area that night: planes mounted with long-range radar systems capable of constantly monitoring the airspace within a radius of more than 250 miles. Yet the Americans weren’t able to provide any evidence of the plane’s alleged U-turn either.

There’s another problem with the “deliberate act” narrative. As de Changy notes, if someone had turned off the transponder, all flight data related to MH370 would have disappeared from ATC screens at the same time. But it took 37 seconds for it all to go dark. “This sequence of events in itself should have been sufficient to dismiss the ‘someone turned off the transponder’ part of the official narrative,” she writes (this was also missing in the documentary).

As for Inmarsat’s satellites, their data also appears to raise more questions than it answers. When, two weeks after the disappearance, the company concluded that the MH370 had turned south and crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the world was expected to just take their word for it — even though Inmarsat’s findings were based on a complex analysis of ping data which had never been attempted before. In fact, right from the start, experts and family members raised doubts about the reliability of the ping-based calculations and asked the company to provide the raw data for independent analysis. For three months, Inmarsat refused, and when they finally did release some of it, several critical details necessary to understand how they did their calculations were missing. Since then, Inmarsat has refused to share its complete set of data with the families and the media.

But the biggest hole in Inmarsat’s story is also the most obvious: the fact that, despite the world’s largest search in history, covering almost two million square miles in the southern Indian Ocean, no remains of the plane have been found in the supposed crash area near Australia — despite the fact that, when a plane crashes into the sea, there is almost always debris. The only debris considered by investigators “almost certainly” or “highly likely” to be linked to MH370 has been discovered around the coast of Africa, thousands of miles away.

Finally, it remains unclear why the plane’s captain — the prime suspect in the “deliberate act” narrative — would have committed such a horrendous act. Over the years, the Western press has questioned Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s mental health, political orientation and even his sexual preferences — all in an attempt to paint him as someone potentially capable of such a crime. However, from extensive interviews with his friends and family, and analysis of the police reports about him, de Changy concludes that Zaharie was unlikely to be suffering from mental health issues. “My research convinced me that Zaharie was of sound mind and a genuinely good man,” she told me last week. “He was also one of the airline’s most experienced pilots.”

Amid such uncertainty, it’s no wonder that MH370 has become the subject of all sorts of conspiratorial conjecture, involving black holes, insurance scams, North Korea, a meteorite, remote hijacking and even aliens. Most of these theories are so outlandish that they have tended to make all non-official explanations for the disappearance of MH370 seem crazy by association. The Netflix documentary suffers from the same contamination. After covering the official theory in the first episode, the series then explores two alternatives. The first is presented by American journalist and aviation expert Jeff Wise, who suggested in 2015 that a group of Russian hijackers — there were three ethnic Russians on the flight (two held Ukrainian passports) — could have lowered themselves into the plane’s electronics bay and taken control of the aircraft in order to divert it north, possibly to Kazakhstan, while somehow altering the Inmarsat data so it looked like the plane had gone south.

It is such an absurd theory — as Wise himself acknowledges in the documentary — that one cannot help but wonder why the decision was made to dedicate an entire episode to it. It also has the effect of casting its tinfoil hat-shaped shadow over the second alternative theory proposed by Florence de Changy in the third and final episode. She suggests that MH370 didn’t disappear from the screens of ATC  because someone turned off its transponder, but because the plane’s communications system was jammed — possibly by the two US AWACS planes mentioned by the aforementioned intelligence source. De Changy suggests the aim might have been to force the plane to land in order to seize a highly sensitive cargo which the US didn’t want to fall into Chinese hands (she points to a 2.5-ton consignment that was delivered to the airport under escort and was not X-rayed). However, something went wrong and MH370 met its fate somewhere above the South China Sea, possibly as a result of a mid-air collision or a missile strike.

It’s obviously a highly controversial claim, but unlike Wise, de Changy at least has some evidence to back it up, most of which isn’t mentioned in the documentary but is presented in her book. In it, she highlights that there was large US military presence in the South China Sea that day; that progressive loss of signal on the ATC screens is consistent with jamming; that MH370 activated the emergency Tango code, which would indicate the pilots knew something abnormal was going on; that another plane that was flying nearby managed to get a radio contact with MH370 at around 1:30am (10 minutes after the plane disappeared from the radar) but it was brief and muddled (also consistent with progressive jamming); and that MH370 was seen on the primary radar (meaning a target is observed but no identification is received) of Vietnam’s ATC 37 miles after the point at which it is supposed to have made the U-turn.

Most notably, as de Changy notes, there were initial but unverified reports of a distress signal from MH370 being picked up at 2:43am by a US unit based in Thailand. Finally, we have the dozens of “nodders” (people scanning satellite images on Tomnod, a website that used crowdsourcing to identify objects and places in satellite images) who insist they saw extensive plane debris in the South China Sea; the oil slicks spotted off the coast of Vietnam; the Cathay Pacific pilots flying the next day above the Vietnam coast who reported sighting a “large amount of debris” to the Hong Kong ATC; and the employee working on a rig off the coast of Vietnam who claimed to have seen a fire the night of the disappearance.

I had initially contacted de Changy to ask what it feels like for a respected journalist to be presented as a fringe conspiracist — the conclusion many will reach after watching the film. “Actually, I started with an anti-conspiracy theory approach,” she explains. “I looked very closely at the evidence backing all the theories and scenarios out there including the official narrative. Eventually, I discovered a cluster of corroborating conclusions that point to something incredibly consistent and that did indeed point towards a massive international conspiracy scenario. It’s for the readers to decide whether it’s credible or not.”

De Changy is aware that her theory is mostly speculative, but remains confident that MH370 met its fate in the South China Sea, not in the Indian Ocean. “It’s still more credible than the idea that the plane flew halfway around the world completely undetected,” she told me. “If you think it’s impossible for a plane to disappear into thin air, that is because it is.”