Nobody knows what doomed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and the world’s aviation authorities have given up trying to find out.
But that didn’t stop the Malaysian government outrageously trying to imply—as they have done before—that there was foul play by the pilots.
The chief Malaysian investigator into the catastrophe, Kok Soo Chon, presenting the government’s final report on the catastrophe in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, made a point of homing in on the moment when the Boeing 777 suddenly departed from its flight path, implying that it was deliberately flown to oblivion in the far Indian Ocean.
Describing that moment, Kok said, “The autopilot has to be disengaged. It has to be on manual.”
But that it is exactly what the pilots should have done when faced with a sudden emergency and needed to get to a runway as quickly as possible—they would disengage the autopilot and take control manually.
The jet made a sharp left turn, reversing direction while en route north to Beijing.
In making that turn the jet’s navigational heading became identical to one called Terminal Primary Approach, directing it to the nearest airport, Sultan Ismail Petra Airport at Kota Bharu on the eastern coast of Malaysia.
But the next step that would have automatically been dictated as an emergency response, to begin a descent, never happened.
From that moment the only changes made to the jet’s flight path were directional—one, a right turn to follow an international flight corridor over the Strait of Malacca, and a final left turn toward the southern Indian Ocean. No significant changes were made to either its speed or altitude until, some five hours and 40 minutes later it began to run out of fuel and somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean. There it began a death dive into deep water.
This flight pattern without any contact with air traffic controllers remains the stubborn core of the mystery. There is no precedent for it in the history of aviation disasters. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the Malaysian report to corroborate the idea that the pilots were responsible for taking such an inexplicable action.
Indeed, had the pilots really wanted to make the jet disappear, they would have turned right, not left: as it was, they headed directly into air space covered by overlapping radars based in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Had they turned right, they would have quickly slipped free of radar coverage over the South China Sea—where, in one of the many missteps by the Malaysians in the hours following the jet’s disappearance, the first searches were directed.
The other perplexing and troubling thing about the jet’s sudden change of course is that from that moment it went dumb. No word was ever heard from it again and nobody knew where it was.
This has also been frequently invoked to smear the pilots. The 777’s two means of keeping contact with the ground, a regular signal recording its position and half-hourly data dumps recording the behavior of its critical systems, both ceased working.
Very early on the Malaysians insisted (and they were widely believed) that this was a deliberate action by the pilots who had “turned off” the systems. The new report persists with this idea, claiming, somewhat confusingly, that “while mechanical fault could not be ruled out” the communications systems had been “deliberately disabled.”
But an expert that I have consulted on the Boeing 777’s communications systems was adamant that both those systems could have been taken out by a wider failure of part of the airplane’s power supply systems.
As with so many elements of this mystery, it remains impossible to explain how this jet, with 239 souls aboard, was able to impersonate the behavior of a normal flight while being far from normal—as it flew on out of night and into day on March 8, 2014, it exhibited a weird kind of impersonal efficiency, the two Rolls Royce engines running normally until all the gas was burned.
And the Malaysian report confirms that there was no attempt by the pilots to make a controlled “ditching” of the airplane at the end of the flight. Evidence from pieces of debris from the wings, washed up on beaches in the western Indian Ocean, proved that the controls had not been moved to prepare for a ditching.
The scapegoating of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid by the Malaysians lost credibility long ago. A previous Malaysian report conceded that neither of them had shown any signs of personal or financial problems or any possible motive for a mass murder-suicide and Kok, in the press conference, repeated this, while, at the same time, saying “We cannot establish if the aircraft was flown by anyone other than the pilot.”
A parallel investigation into the crew and the circumstances of the flight by the Royal Malaysian Police has long remained opaque but Kok demolished another conspiracy theory, that Shah had rehearsed hijacking his own flight. He said that the results of the police’s examination of a flight simulator program on Captain Shah’s home computer were “too confused and limited to provide any real detail.”
Kok himself seemed confused about whether this was a final report, as it is titled, or not. “This is not the final report,” he said. “It will be too presumptuous of us to say this is the final report, if the wreckage hasn’t been found, if no victims have been found… How can we call the report our final report?”
What he meant was that, while this was the Malaysians’ handing off of all responsibility to find the answers, other people had a continuing responsibility: “…as far as our team is concerned we have done our job… we do not deal with search. Search is not our area. You have to ask the people responsible for the search…”
With that he was, in effect, dumping on the Australians. Two deep-sea searches lasting for four years were directed by the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau. The final phase of the search this year deployed the world’s most advanced sonar technology but still came up empty.
The Malaysian’s “final” report fulfills a bureaucratic obligation, but certainly not a moral one. As the owner of the involved airline, its government led the investigation and under the rules of the International Commercial Aviation Organization, a UN body based in Montreal, it could not conclude the investigation without issuing a report.
The report concedes few errors by the Malaysians–it admits to the dereliction of air traffic controllers in failing to immediately notice that the flight had disappeared, recommends new security measures for cargo-scanning (while refuting the theory a consignment of lithium-ion batteries in the cargo bay contributed to the disaster), and suggests more frequent monitoring of the medical condition of flight crews.
From the beginning, this tragedy was compounded by the abysmal performance of the Malaysian government, riddled as it was by extraordinary levels of corruption and lax ministerial oversight, itself the product of cronyism. The tone of the report and of Kok’s press conference is unmistakably and disgracefully that of people heading out the door in a hurry.
“In conclusion, the team is unable to determine the real cause for the disappearance of MH370.”
Nobody else, not the ICAO, not the Australians, not Boeing, seems inclined to remedy that.