World News

03.15.14

Up To Speed On Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Investigators announced Saturday morning that the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane has turned into a criminal investigation. Get up to speed on the mystery here.

By now it’s nearly impossible to not have heard about the mysterious case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. But if you’re a bit shaky on the details of what exactly happened to the missing jetliner, you’re not alone. The information that has come to light in the days since the Boeing 777 and its 239 passengers and crew disappeared without a trace, has only added to the confusion. As investigators, international authorities and conspiracy theorists attempt to piece together what little clues they have as to the plane’s whereabouts, here is a simple guide to what we know, what people think, and what we need to find out.

The Basics

About an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur headed toward Beijing in the early hours of Saturday, March 8, a Malaysia Airlines flight lost contact with air traffic control and completely disappeared off the radar. Air traffic control never received a distress signal from the plane and no wreckage, debris, or evidence of a crash has been discovered.

Who Was on This Plane?

According to the flight’s manifest, onboard the the Boeing 777 were 227 passengers, 153 of whom were Chinese, 38 Malaysian (plus all 12 crew members) and seven children. Not long after the plane went missing, it was soon discovered that two of the passengers were Iranian men who had been travelling on stolen passports.

Manning the flight was Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the 50-year-old pilot, and his 27-year-old first mate Officer Fariq Ab Hamid. Zaharie, whose Malaysian home has been staked out all week by police—and reportedly raided on Saturday morning—is a flight simulator enthusiast, according to YouTube videos and blog posts discovered online. CNN’s aviation correspondent once sat in the cockpit during a Malaysia Airlines training session with Fariq and said his landing was “textbook perfect.” But another former passenger reported after MH370’s disappearance that she, too, got to join Fariq in the cockpit during a flight from Thailand to Malaysia and said that Fariq and his co-pilot were smoking—something that would be illegal on an American airline.

The Investigation

Even on day seven it seems unfathomable that with today’s technology that one of the world’s largest commercial jetliners and 239 people could vanish quite literally into thin air without a trace. Yet an international search and rescue mission has so far turned up little to no concrete clues, but instead raised more questions than its answered. Though investigators were hesitant to suggest the plane had been hijacked, as no terrorist groups had come forward to claim responsibility, the latest clues have U.S. officials sounding almost certain that there was some sort of “human intervention” involved in the jet’s disappearance. As of Saturday, U.S. officials had determined that the plane switched course multiple times and changed it’s altitude after losing contact with ground control, indicating that either a pilot or someone with aviation skills was at the helm. On Saturday morning, they announced that the search for the jet had become a "criminal inquiry."  Investigators also said the plane’s transponder and another messaging system were turned off at separate times, hinting at some sort of foul play, and that the plane was likely flown for up to seven hours to an unknown destination.

So What Now?

The longer the MH370 goes undiscovered the more people are bound to concoct their own theories about what happened, with aliens, terrorists, and elves already among the top proposed culprits. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the plane may have been able to fly for more than four hours after it lost touch with air traffic control. On Saturday, Malaysian authorities amended this to suggest it could have flown for up to seven hours towards Central Asia or the western coast of Australia. At a press conference, the Malaysian prime minister said that the plane could have traveled along one of two arcs—the first running from the southern border to Kazakhstan to northern Thailand, with the other running from Indonesia down the west coast of Australia. This suggestion might feed into the belief proposed by some conspiracy theorists that the plane landed safely and is hiding somewhere, like in North Korea or under a high-tech invisibility cloak.