Former national correspondent for The Atlantic and a professional pilot, has written about subjects including aviation, national security, and North Africa
What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane
Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say
1. The Disappearance
At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator. He flew it frequently, and often posted to online forums about his hobby. In the cockpit, Fariq would have been deferential to him, but Zaharie was not known for being overbearing.
In the cabin were 10 flight attendants, all of them Malaysian. They had 227 passengers to care for, including five children. Most of the passengers were Chinese; of the rest, 38 were Malaysian, and in descending order the others came from Indonesia, Australia, India, France, the United States, Iran, Ukraine, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Russia, and Taiwan. Up in the cockpit that night, while First Officer Fariq flew the airplane, Captain Zaharie handled the radios. The arrangement was standard. Zaharie’s transmissions were a bit unusual. At 1:01 a.m. he radioed that they had leveled off at 35,000 feet—a superfluous report in radar-surveilled airspace where the norm is to report leaving an altitude, not arriving at one. At 1:08 the flight crossed the Malaysian coastline and set out across the South China Sea in the direction of Vietnam. Zaharie again reported the plane’s level at 35,000 feet.
Eleven minutes later, as the airplane closed in on a waypoint near the start of Vietnamese air-traffic jurisdiction, the controller at Kuala Lumpur Center radioed, “Malaysian three-seven-zero, contact Ho Chi Minh one-two-zero-decimal-nine. Good night.” Zaharie answered, “Good night. Malaysian three-seven-zero.” He did not read back the frequency, as he should have, but otherwise the transmission sounded normal. It was the last the world heard from MH370. The pilots never checked in with Ho Chi Minh or answered any of the subsequent attempts to raise them.
Primary radar relies on simple, raw pings off objects in the sky. Air-traffic-control systems use what is known as secondary radar. It depends on a transponder signal that is transmitted by each airplane and contains richer information—for instance, the airplane’s identity and altitude—than primary radar does. Five seconds after MH370 crossed into Vietnamese airspace, the symbol representing its transponder dropped from the screens of Malaysian air traffic control, and 37 seconds later the entire airplane disappeared from secondary radar. The time was 1:21 a.m., 39 minutes after takeoff. The controller in Kuala Lumpur was dealing with other traffic elsewhere on his screen and simply didn’t notice. When he finally did, he assumed that the airplane was in the hands of Ho Chi Minh, somewhere out beyond his range.
The Vietnamese controllers, meanwhile, saw MH370 cross into their airspace and then disappear from radar. They apparently misunderstood a formal agreement by which Ho Chi Minh was supposed to inform Kuala Lumpur immediately if an airplane that had been handed off was more than five minutes late checking in. They tried repeatedly to contact the aircraft, to no avail. By the time they picked up the phone to inform Kuala Lumpur, 18 minutes had passed since MH370’s disappearance from their radar screens. What ensued was an exercise in confusion and incompetence. Kuala Lumpur’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre should have been notified within an hour of the disappearance. By 2:30 a.m., it still had not been. Four more hours elapsed before an emergency response was finally begun, at 6:32 a.m.
At that moment, the airplane should have been landing in Beijing. The search for it was initially concentrated in the South China Sea, between Malaysia and Vietnam. It was an international effort by 34 ships and 28 aircraft from seven different countries. But MH370 was nowhere near there. Within a matter of days, primary-radar records salvaged from air-traffic-control computers, and partially corroborated by secret Malaysian air-force data, revealed that as soon as MH370 disappeared from secondary radar, it turned sharply to the southwest, flew back across the Malay Peninsula, and banked around the island of Penang. From there it flew northwest up the Strait of Malacca and out across the Andaman Sea, where it faded beyond radar range into obscurity. That part of the flight took more than an hour to accomplish and suggested that this was not a standard case of a hijacking. Nor was it like an accident or pilot-suicide scenario that anyone had encountered before. From the start, MH370 was leading investigators in unexplored directions.
The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.
This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.
2. The Beachcomber
On the evening of the airplane’s disappearance, a middle-aged American man named Blaine Gibson was sitting in his late mother’s house in Carmel, California, sorting through her affairs in preparation for selling the property. He heard the news about MH370 on CNN.
Gibson, whom I met recently in Kuala Lumpur, is a lawyer by training. He has lived in Seattle for more than 35 years but spends little time there. His father, who died decades ago, was a World War I veteran who endured a mustard-gas attack in the trenches, received a Silver Star for gallantry, and went on to serve as the chief justice of California for more than 24 years. His mother was a graduate of Stanford Law School and an ardent environmentalist.
Gibson was an only child. His mother liked to travel internationally, and she took him with her. At the age of 7 he decided that his life’s goal would be to visit every country in the world at least once. Ultimately this challenged the definitions of visit and country, but he stuck with the mission, forgoing any chance of a sustained career and subsisting on a modest inheritance. By his own account, along the way he dabbled in some famous mysteries—the end of the Mayan civilization in the jungles of Guatemala and Belize, the Tunguska meteor explosion in eastern Siberia, and the location of the Ark of the Covenant in the mountains of Ethiopia. He printed up cards identifying himself: adventurer. explorer. truth seeker. He wore a fedora, like Indiana Jones. When news arrived of MH370’s disappearance, he was predisposed to pay attention.
Despite reflexive denials by Malaysian officials, and outright obfuscation by the Malaysian air force, the truth about the airplane’s strange flight path quickly began to emerge. It turned out that MH370 had continued to link up intermittently with a geostationary Indian Ocean satellite operated by Inmarsat, a commercial vendor in London, for six hours after the airplane disappeared from secondary radar. This meant that the airplane had not suddenly suffered some catastrophic event. During those six hours it is presumed to have remained in high-speed, high-altitude cruising flight. The Inmarsat linkups, some of them known as “handshakes,” were electronic blips: routine connections that amounted to the merest whisper of communication, because the intended contents of the system—passenger entertainment, cockpit texts, automated maintenance reports—had been isolated or switched off. All told, there were seven linkups: two initiated automatically by the airplane, and five others initiated automatically by the Inmarsat ground station. There were also two satellite-phone calls; they went unanswered but provided additional data. Associated with most of these connections were two values that Inmarsat had only recently begun to log.
The first and more accurate of the values is known as the burst-timing offset, or what I will call the “distance value.” It is a measure of the transmission time to and from the airplane, and therefore of the plane’s distance from the satellite. It does not pinpoint a single location but rather all equidistant locations—a roughly circular set of possibilities. Given the range limits of MH370, the near-circles can be reduced to arcs. The most important arc is the seventh and last one—defined by a final handshake tied in complex ways to fuel exhaustion and the failure of the main engines. The seventh arc stretches from Central Asia in the north to the vicinity of Antarctica in the south. It was crossed by MH370 at 8:19 a.m., Kuala Lumpur time. Calculations of likely flight paths place the airplane’s intersection with the seventh arc—and therefore its end point—in Kazakhstan if the airplane turned north, or in the southern Indian Ocean if it turned south.
Technical analysis indicates with near certainty that the airplane turned south. We know this from Inmarsat’s second logged value—the burst-frequency offset. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to this value as the “Doppler value,” because it includes, most crucially, a measure of radio-frequency Doppler shifts associated with high-speed movement in relation to satellite position, and is a natural part of satellite communications for airplanes in flight. Doppler shifts have to be predicted and compensated for by airborne systems in order for satellite communications to function. But the compensation is not quite perfect, because satellites—particularly as they age—do not transmit signals in precisely the way airplanes have been programmed to expect. Their orbits may tilt slightly. They are also affected by temperature. These imperfections leave telltale traces. Although Doppler-shift logs had never been used before to determine the location of an airplane, Inmarsat technicians in London were able to discern a significant distortion suggesting a turn to the south at 2:40 a.m. The turn point was a bit north and west of Sumatra, the northernmost island of Indonesia. It has been assumed, at some analytical risk, that the airplane then flew straight and level for a very long while in the general direction of Antarctica, which lay beyond its range.
After six hours, the Doppler data indicated a steep descent—as much as five times greater than a normal descent rate. Within a minute or two of crossing the seventh arc, the plane dived into the ocean, possibly shedding components before impact. Judging from the electronic evidence, this was not a controlled attempt at a water landing. The airplane must have fractured instantly into a million pieces. But no one knew where the impact had occurred, much less why. And no one had the slightest bit of physical evidence to confirm that the satellite interpretations were correct.
Less than a week after the disappearance, The Wall Street Journal published the first report about the satellite transmissions, indicating that the airplane had most likely stayed aloft for hours after going silent. Malaysian officials eventually admitted that the account was true. The Malaysian regime was said to be one of the most corrupt in the region. It was also proving itself to be furtive, fearful, and unreliable in its investigation of the flight. Accident investigators dispatched from Europe, Australia, and the United States were shocked by the disarray they encountered. Because the Malaysians withheld what they knew, the initial sea searches were concentrated in the wrong place—the South China Sea—and found no floating debris. Had the Malaysians told the truth right away, such debris might have been found and used to identify the airplane’s approximate location; the black boxes might have been recovered. The underwater search for them ultimately centered on a narrow swath of ocean thousands of miles away. But even a narrow swath of the ocean is a big place. It took two years to find the black boxes from Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009—and the searchers had known exactly where to look.
The initial search of surface waters ended in April 2014, after nearly two months of futile efforts, and the focus shifted to the ocean depths, where it remains today. Blaine Gibson followed the frustration at first from a distance. He sold his mother’s house and moved to the Golden Triangle of northern Laos, where he and a business partner set about building a restaurant on the Mekong River. He joined a Facebook discussion group dedicated to the loss of MH370. It was filled with speculation, but also with news that reflected useful thinking about what could have happened to the airplane and where the main wreckage might be found.
Although the Malaysians were nominally in charge of the entire investigation, they lacked the means and expertise to mount a subsea search-and-recovery effort; the Australians, as good international citizens, took the lead. The areas of the Indian Ocean that the satellite data pointed to—about 1,200 miles southwest of Perth—were so deep and unexplored that the first challenge was to map the undersea topography sufficiently to allow side-scanning sonar vehicles to be safely towed miles beneath the surface. The ocean floor was lined with ridges in a blackness where light had never penetrated.
Gibson began to wonder whether, for all the strenuous underwater searching, debris from the airplane might someday simply wash up on a beach somewhere. While visiting friends on the coast of Cambodia, he asked whether they had stumbled on anything. They had not. Debris couldn’t possibly have drifted to Cambodia from the southern Indian Ocean, but until the airplane’s wreckage was found—proving that the southern Indian Ocean was indeed its grave—Gibson was determined to keep an open mind.
In March 2015, a one-year commemoration of MH370’s disappearance was held in Kuala Lumpur by the passengers’ next of kin. Uninvited, and largely unknown to them, Gibson decided to attend. Because he had no special knowledge to offer, his arrival raised eyebrows. People don’t know what to make of a dilettante. The commemoration took place in an outdoor space at a shopping mall, a typical event venue for Kuala Lumpur. The purpose was to grieve collectively, but also to maintain pressure on the government of Malaysia to provide explanations. Hundreds of people attended, many from China. There was a bit of music on a stage. In the background a large poster showed the silhouette of a Boeing 777, along with the words where, who, why, when, whom, how, and also impossible, unprecedented, vanished, and clueless. The principal speaker was a young Malaysian woman named Grace Subathirai Nathan, whose mother had been on the flight. Nathan is a criminal-defense lawyer specializing in death-penalty cases, of which Malaysia has many because of draconian laws. She had emerged as the most effective representative of the next of kin. She took to the stage wearing an oversize T-shirt printed with a cartoon graphic of MH370 and the exhortation search on, and then proceeded to describe her mother, the deep love she felt for her, and the difficulty of enduring her disappearance. On occasion she quietly wept, as did some in the audience, including Gibson. Afterward, he approached Nathan and asked whether she would accept a hug from a stranger. She did, and they became friends.
Gibson left the commemoration determined to help by addressing a gap he had perceived—the lack of coastal searches for floating debris. This would be his niche. He would become MH370’s private beachcomber. The official investigators, primarily Australian and Malaysian, were heavily invested in their underwater search. They would have scoffed at Gibson’s ambition, just as they would have scoffed at the prospect that on beaches hundreds of miles apart, Gibson would find pieces of the airplane.
3. The Mother Lode
The Indian Ocean washes against tens of thousands of miles of coastline, depending on how many islands you include in your count. When Blaine Gibson started looking for debris, he did not have a plan. He flew to Myanmar because he had been intending to go there anyway, then went to the coast and asked some villagers where flotsam tended to drift ashore. They directed him to several beaches, and a fisherman took him there by boat. He found some debris, but nothing that came from an airplane. He advised the villagers to be on the lookout, left his contact number, and moved on. Similarly, he visited the Maldives and the islands of Rodrigues and Mauritius without finding debris of interest. Then came July 29, 2015. About 16 months after the airplane went missing, a municipal beach-cleanup crew on the French island of Réunion came upon a torn piece of airfoil about six feet long that seemed to have just washed ashore. The foreman of the crew, a man named Johnny Bègue, realized that it might have come from an airplane, but he had no idea which one. He briefly considered making it into a memorial—setting it on an adjacent lawn and planting some flowers around it—but instead he called a local radio station with the news. A team of gendarmes showed up and took the piece away. It was quickly determined to be a part of a Boeing 777, a control surface called a flaperon that is attached to the trailing edge of the wings. Subsequent examination of serial numbers showed that it had come from MH370.
Here was the necessary physical evidence of what had already been electronically surmised—that the flight had ended violently in the Indian Ocean, albeit somewhere still unknown and thousands of miles to the east of Réunion. The families of those aboard the airplane had to surrender any fantasies that their loved ones might still be alive. It came as a shock, no matter how rational and realistic they had been. Grace Nathan was devastated. She told me that she could barely function for weeks after the flaperon was found.
Gibson flew to Réunion and found Johnny Bègue on his beach. Bègue was friendly. He showed Gibson where he had found the flaperon. Gibson poked around for other debris but without expectation, because the French government had already mounted a follow-up search to no avail. Flotsam takes a while to drift across the Indian Ocean, moving from east to west at the low southern latitudes, and a flaperon might arrive sooner than other debris because parts of it could rise above the water and act as a sail.
A newspaper reporter in Réunion interviewed Gibson for a story about the visit of this independent American investigator. Gibson wore a search on T-shirt for the occasion. He then flew to Australia, where he spoke with two oceanographers—Charitha Pattiaratchi, of the University of Western Australia at Perth, and David Griffin, who worked for a government research center in Hobart and had been assigned to advise the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the lead agency in the search for MH370. Both men were experts on Indian Ocean currents and winds. Griffin in particular had spent years tracking drift buoys, and had launched an effort to model the complex drift characteristics of the flaperon during its voyage to Réunion—the hope being to backtrack and narrow the geographic scope of the undersea search. Gibson’s needs were easier to handle: He wanted to know the most likely locations for floating debris to come ashore. The answer was the northeast coast of Madagascar and, to a lesser degree, the coast of Mozambique.
Gibson opted for Mozambique because he had not been there before and could bag it as his 177th country. He chose a town called Vilanculos, because it seemed safe and had nice beaches. He got there in February 2016. As he recalls, he asked for advice from local fishermen, and was told of a sandbank called Paluma that lay beyond a reef, where fishermen would go to collect nets and buoys that washed in from the Indian Ocean. Gibson paid a boatman named Suleman to take him there. They found all sorts of junk, mostly plastic. Suleman called Gibson over. Holding up a gray triangular scrap about two feet across, he asked, “Is this 370?” The scrap had a honeycomb structure and the stenciled words no step on one surface. Gibson’s first impression was that it could not have come from a large airplane. To me he said, “So my mind was telling me it’s not from the plane, but my heart was telling me it’s from the plane. Then we had to take the boat back. And here we get into the personal thing. Two dolphins appeared and helped lead us off that sandbank—my mother’s spirit animal. When I saw those dolphins, I thought, This is from the plane.”
Make of that what you will, but Gibson turned out to be right. The scrap—from a horizontal-stabilizer panel—was determined to almost certainly be from MH370. Gibson flew to the capital, Maputo, and handed the debris to the Australian consul. Then he flew to Kuala Lumpur, just in time for the second-anniversary commemoration. This time he was welcomed as a friend.
In June 2016, Gibson turned his attention to the remote northeastern shores of Madagascar. This turned out to be the mother lode. Gibson says he found three pieces on the first day, and another two a few days later. The following week, on a beach eight miles away, three more pieces were delivered to him. And so it has gone ever since. Word has gotten around that he will pay for MH370 debris. He says he once paid so much for a piece—$40—that an entire village went on a day-long bender. Apparently the local rum is cheap.
A lot of debris washed up that had nothing to do with the airplane. But of the several dozen pieces that have been identified to date as certain or likely or suspected to have come from MH370, Gibson has been responsible for the discovery of roughly a third. Some pieces are still being investigated. Gibson’s influence has been so large that David Griffin, though grateful to him, has worried that the perceived debris pattern may now be statistically skewed toward Madagascar, perhaps at the expense of points farther north. He has given this worry a name: “The Gibson Effect.”
The fact remains that, after five years, no one has yet been able to work backwards from where the debris has washed ashore and trace it to some point of origin in the southern Indian Ocean. In his insistence on maintaining an open mind, Gibson still holds out the hope of finding new debris that will explain the disappearance—charred wiring indicating a fire, for instance, or shrapnel-peppered evidence of a missile strike—although what is known about the flight’s final hours largely precludes such possibilities. What Gibson’s discovery of so many bits of debris has confirmed is that the signals analysis was correct. The airplane flew for six hours until the flight came suddenly to an end. There was no effort by someone at the controls to bring the airplane down gently. It shattered. There is still a chance, Gibson thinks, of finding the equivalent of a message in a bottle—a note of desperation scribbled by someone in his or her last moments on the doomed airplane. On the beaches, Gibson has found a few backpacks and a large number of purses, all of which have been empty. The closest he has come to finding such a note, he says, was a message written in Malay on the underside of a baseball cap. Translated, it read, “To whom it may concern. My dear friend, meet me at the guesthouse later.”
A—1:21 a.m., March 8, 2014: Over the South China Sea, near a navigational waypoint between Malaysia and Vietnam, MH370 drops from air-traffic-control radar and turns southwest, back across the Malay Peninsula.
B—Roughly an hour later: After flying northwest above the Strait of Malacca, the airplane makes what investigators call the “final major turn” and heads south. The turn and the new course are later reconstructed from satellite data.
C—April 2014: The surface search is abandoned and a deep-ocean search gets under way. Analysis of satellite data had located MH370’s final electronic “handshake” along an arc.
D—July 2015: The first piece of debris from MH370—a flaperon—is discovered on the island of Réunion. Other confirmed or likely pieces have been found on widely dispersed beaches in the western Indian Ocean (locations in red).
4. The Conspiracies
Three official investigations were launched in the wake of MH370’s disappearance. The first was the largest, most rigorous, and most expensive: the technically advanced Australian underwater-search effort, which was focused on locating the main debris in order to retrieve the airplane’s flight-data and cockpit voice recorders. It involved calculations of aircraft performance, the parsing of radar and satellite records, studies of oceanic drift, doses of statistical analysis, and the physical examination of the East African flotsam—much of which came from Blaine Gibson. It required heavy maritime operations in some of the world’s roughest seas. Assisting the effort was a collection of volunteer engineers and scientists who found one another on the internet, called themselves the Independent Group, and collaborated so effectively that the Australians took their work into account and ended up formally thanking them for their insights. In the annals of accident investigation, this had never happened before. Nonetheless, after more than three years and about $160 million, the Australian investigation closed without success. It was picked up in 2018 by an American company called Ocean Infinity, under contract with the Malaysian government on a “no-find, no-fee” basis. This search used advanced underwater-surveillance vehicles and covered a new section of the seventh arc, a section deemed most likely by the Independent Group to bring results. After a few months, it too ended in failure.
The second official investigation belonged to the Malaysian police, and amounted to background checks of everyone on the airplane as well as some of their friends. It is hard to know the true extent of the police discoveries, because the report that resulted from the investigation stopped short of full disclosure. The report was stamped secret and withheld even from other Malaysian investigators, but after it was leaked by someone on the inside, its inadequacies became clear. In particular, it held back on divulging all that was known about the captain, Zaharie. No one was surprised. The prime minister at the time was a nasty man named Najib Razak, who was alleged to be monumentally corrupt. The press in Malaysia was censored. Troublemakers were being picked up and made to disappear. Officials had reason for caution. They had careers to protect, and maybe their lives. It is obvious that decisions were made to not pursue certain avenues that might have reflected poorly on Malaysia Airlines or the government.
The third official investigation was the accident inquiry, intended not to adjudicate liability but to find probable cause, and to be conducted according to the highest global standards by an international team. It was led by an ad hoc working group assembled by the Malaysian government, and was a mess from its inception. The police and military disdained it. Government ministers saw it as a risk. Foreign specialists who were sent to assist began retreating almost as soon as they arrived. An American expert, referring to the international aviation protocol that is supposed to govern accident inquiries, told me, “Annex 13 is tailored for accident investigations in confident democracies, but in countries like Malaysia, with insecure and autocratic bureaucracies, and with airlines that are either government-owned or seen as a matter of national prestige, it always makes for a pretty poor fit.”