The mystery of MH370
B777-200ER 9M-MRG, sister to the missing airliner, taxis at Auckland.
In a deeper and more real mystery than the Bermuda Triangle, a Malaysia Airlines airliner has been lost during a routine scheduled flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. Carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members on flight MH370 on 8 March, it departed Kuala Lumpur at 12.41am local time and was due to land at Beijing at 06.30 local time. All contact was lost, however, two hours after takeoff.
Delivered to the airline on 31 May 2002, the Boeing 777-200ER, 9M-MRO, was powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines and had reportedly accumulated 53,460 hours and 7525 cycles in service.
Flight MH370 was a codeshare flight (CZ748) with China Southern Airlines. In command was Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a 53-year-old Malaysian national with 18,365 hours of flying experience who had joined the airline in 1981. F/O Fariq Abdul Hamid, a 27-year-old with 2763hrs’ experience, started flying with Malaysia in 2007.
The passengers included two New Zealanders — Ximin Wang from Auckland and Paul Weeks living in Perth, WA — plus seven Australians, 153 Chinese, 38 Malays, 12 Indonesians, three French, three US citizens, two Ukrainians, two Canadians and two Iranians.
After days of searching in the South China Sea and many false sightings, from an oil slick found near where the aircraft was last seen on radar, to reports such as the aircraft landing in China or wreckage being found by a Chinese satellite, to burning debris in the sky as seen by a Kiwi from an oil rig, nothing was found.
In Australia an excited journalist started more unnecessary speculation, stemming from an incident on 9 August 2012 when the wing of 9M-MRO struck the tail of an aircraft at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. He suggested that might have been repaired incorrectly, all adding to unnecessary stress for everyone, from the passengers’ and crew members’ families to Boeing, and all the airlines wanting to know the B777 was still a safe aircraft to operate.
Then reports came of a turnback, and some of the search area was moved across the Malay Peninsula to the west to the Strait of Malacca and beyond to the Andaman Sea and into the Indian Ocean. It was also announced that the aircraft could have been tracked on the Malaysian military radar as a primary target.
Days of fruitless speculation continued and the search went on, but what had really happened to one of the world’s safest aircraft? Only three B777 hull losses to date, with the loss of only four lives, have come from some 1178 deliveries since the first on 15 May 1995.
Although recovery of the airliner is needed to establish the true answer, there are five possible causes — catastrophic destruction, a possible cargo fire, a possible missile attack, terrorism or a flight deck management problem, including suicide.
A red herring appeared early on when it was announced that two passengers, identified as two young Iranian men, were travelling on stolen passports. Pouria Nour Mohammed Mehrdad, 19, was booked through to Frankfurt where his mother was waiting for him, and Delavar Seyed Mohammed Reza, 29, boarded the flight in company with him but was booked through to Copenhagen.
Investigators later said the two had no known links to terror organisations and appeared to be economic migrants trying to reach Western Europe.
Some five days later news came that the B777 could have been flying for another five hours, according to the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) engine data. Then this was denied as it was announced the ACARS had been turned off some minutes before the transponder was switched off, 50min after takeoff.
Days of searching revealed nothing of the aircraft whereabouts. On the afternoon of 15 March the Malaysian Prime Minister was reluctant to call it a hijacking, but he said Malaysian officials now believed somebody inside the aircraft with expertise in the navigational and communications systems of the B777-200 had diverted it from its Kuala Lumpur–Beijing flight path.
It was then announced the aircraft had still been transmitting some information, a ping to an Inmarsat satellite, for up to five hours. But no data on position or health of the aircraft is sent in this manner, merely an hourly transmission until about the time it would have run out of fuel.
From this information Malaysian authorities then refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board. At a news conference it was said investigators were then focusing their search now on two air traffic corridors — a southern one heading from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean towards Australia; and a northern route towards Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
The search has so far involved some 22 nations, deploying 43 ships and 58 aircraft, including an RNZAF P-3 Orion temporarily based in Penang and later Perth. The USAF also added its latest maritime surveillance Boeing P-8A Poseidon to the search in the new location, deep into the Indian Ocean, while two recently delivered Indian Air Force P-8I Poseidons joined in the search.
The general search moved west and then south as the waiting game continued: where was flight MH370? The flight crew’s homes were searched amid the news that the captain had strong political views and was upset about the Leader of the Opposition being imprisoned hours before the flight.
Further reports have surfaced that an al-Qaeda supergrass told a New York court a few days earlier that four to five Malaysian men had been planning to take control of a plane using a bomb hidden in a shoe to blow open the cockpit door.
The search continues with no answers. However, just as we go to press the Malaysian Prime Minister has announced that the aircraft is most likely to have crashed into the South Indian Ocean after running out of fuel, with no survivors.
- Report by Peter Clark
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