Five years on from the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, families of the 239 people on board still have no conclusive answers as to how their loved ones perished.
On March 8, 2014, the Boeing 777 bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing suddenly performed a U-turn, and zig-zagged up the Straits of Malacca, before vanishing.
In his book, The Hunt for MH370, Sydney journalist Ean Higgins comprehensively explores the theories – murder-suicide, accident, terrorist hijacking or something else? – behind aviation’s greatest mystery.
The following extract sheds light on the confusion and chaos that ruled in the moments, then hours, following the plane’s disappearance, as authorities struggled to understand how an aircraft could vanish into thin air.
The night of Friday, 7 March 2014, was one of the rare times when Malaysia’s civil aviation boss’s mobile phone ran out of power.
Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, then chief of the Civil Aviation Department, had been to a family dinner: his niece was to be married at the weekend, and it had been a festive pre-wedding get together, so he was ready for sleep.
He put his phone on charge, and went to bed. It was only after pre-dawn prayers next morning that he switched on his phone.
As he later related in the excellent 2018 British television documentary MH370: Inside the Situation Room: ‘I straight away told my wife, something is not right.’
That turned out to be the understatement of the year. At that point Azharuddin did not know Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 had vanished into thin air.
The air traffic controllers under Azharuddin’s authority should have been trained better for the worst-case scenario; when MH370 disappeared, disbelief, confusion and panic set in.
After advising MH370 to switch to Ho Chi Minh control, and hearing [pilot] Zaharie [Ahmad Shah] acknowledge with ‘Good night, Malaysian Three Seven Zero’ at 1:19am, Kuala Lumpur controllers’ interest in the flight had waned, as they assumed their Vietnamese counterparts were on the case.
Their attention was jolted back pretty quickly when, at 1:39am, Ho Chi Minh air traffic controllers said MH370 had not contacted them and, even more alarming, secondary radar contact was lost at BITOD, a waypoint not far after IGARI.
The segments below are from the official transcript of the air traffic control communications.
Ho Chi Minh air traffic control (HCM): Any information on Malaysian Three Seven Zero, sir?
Kuala Lumpur air traffic control (KL): Malaysian Three Seven Zero already transfer to you right?
HCM: Yeah, yeah, I know at time two zero. But we have no … just about in contact … after BITOD we have no … radar lost with him. The other one here to track identified on my radar.
KL: Okay at what point?
HCM: And no contact right now.
KL: At what point?
KL: At what point?
KL: At what point you lost contact?
KL: BITOD, hah.
KL: BITOD. Okay. Call you back.
At 1:41am, Ho Chi Minh again asked for information on MH370, and the reply was that, after IGARI, MH370 did not return to the Kuala Lumpur frequency. Seconds later, a Kuala Lumpur controller made a ‘blind transmission’ to [try to re-establish contact with] MH370.
‘Malaysia Three Seven Zero, do you read?’ the controller asked.
There was no response.
As 2:00am came round, it had been 40 minutes since the aircraft had, as far as the controllers could see, vanished from the face of the earth, but then red herrings started to further confuse the situation.
Kuala Lumpur controllers had been in discussions with Malaysia Airlines’ operations centre, and relayed to the Vietnamese that they had been informed MH370 was in Cambodian airspace.
But the Ho Chi Minh controllers queried that, saying they had been in touch with their counterparts in Phnom Penh who had no word on MH370 and were just as much in the dark – the flight plan did not call for the aircraft to transit Cambodia.
The misinformation reflected a grievously wrong assumption at the Malaysia Airlines operations centre.
The officers there were confident they knew where MH370 was because the aircraft was able to exchange signals with the Flight Explorer aircraft tracking website, or so they thought.
Malaysia Airlines operations officers repeatedly expressed confidence they could track MH370 even if radio communications and satellite phone and fax contact was lost, and insisted it was still steadily moving on Flight Explorer.
At 2:20am, the Ho Chi Minh controller said that was all very well, but from where they sat, MH370 had ‘disappeared’.
Fuad Sharuji, Malaysia Airlines’ crisis director, got a call at about 2:30am. Sharuji opened up his laptop, and to his shock and amazement, found MH370 just wasn’t there at all.
Just before 3am, 30 minutes after that first phone call, Sharuji declared a code red emergency.
Within an hour most of its top officers had arrived to set up shop in its Emergency Operations Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
They looked at the aircraft maintenance log, and it recorded no known technical problems. They checked whether MH370 was carrying any dangerous goods – that too came up blank.
What flummoxed the Malaysia Airlines officials was that Flight Explorer kept showing the aircraft blithely tracking on its planned course towards Beijing.
Then the penny dropped. Flight Explorer was not tracking where MH370 actually was in real time at all, but rather where it should be if the flight had proceeded normally.
And it had not proceeded normally for some time. By this stage, MH370 had flown back across the Malay Peninsula to Penang, turned north-west up the Straits of Malacca, gone out of radar range, and at some point turned south on a track to the southern Indian Ocean.
At 5:20am, four hours after the aircraft’s disappearance, the Malaysian safety investigation report says when a senior Malaysia airlines captain asked for information on MH370, he opined that based on known information, ‘MH370 never left Malaysian airspace’.
Ten minutes later, the Malaysian control watch supervisor contacted the Kuala Lumpur Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre to say Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was missing.
The scheduled arrival time for MH370 in Beijing was 6:30am, and Malaysian authorities were still hoping that, by some miracle, it might just land safely.
Ahmad Jauhari said in MH370: Inside the Situation Room: ‘But 6:30 came, and there’s no aircraft. You know, we felt terrible – sick, really.’
At 7:14am, when MH370 would have had only about an hour’s fuel left, Malaysia Airlines operations tried another satellite telephone call to the pilots – it too went unanswered.
MH370 had covered most of its track to its end point in the southern Indian Ocean.
The Malaysian Air Force hadn’t shown up, [and] radio transmissions asking [Zaharie] to respond showed the authorities were clueless about where he really was and what he was doing.
If he had hijacked the plane, Zaharie must have thought he’d got away with it.
This is an edited extract from The Hunt for MH370, by Ean Higgins, Pan Macmillan Australia, RRP 32.99