Who Gagged the Search for MH370?

New reports that the pilot of the missing airliner is now a suspect highlight how much Malaysia—or someone—has stymied the investigation.

Junaidi Hanafiah/Reuters

It’s not just the airplane. When 239 people disappear without trace, as they did with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, there is an urgent public interest in knowing why.

After 15 weeks, this interest has not been met. For the families of the passengers this has caused its own kind of unimaginable and prolonged distress for which there is no precedent. For journalists covering what is, without doubt, the greatest aviation mystery in history, it has turned out to be a frustrating exercise in trying to report the unreportable.

This weekend, there were reports from London that the pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah “was the most likely perpetrator if deliberate human action is to blame.” But the same report quoted a Malaysian spokesman saying “The police investigation is still ongoing. To date no conclusion can be made as to the contributor to the incident and it would be sub judice to say so. Nevertheless the police are still looking into all possible angles.”

This is just the latest example of contradictory and unsubstantiated information from unnamed sources leaking from Kuala Lumpur.

During the early weeks, any scrap of information, no matter how dubious or transient, became fodder for what was probably the most fevered manifestation of the 24-hour news cycle that we’ve ever seen. All over the world, in every language, it produced swarm reporting involving every medium from 24-hour cable news to the most hysterical bloggers and blizzards of tweets.

All this has exposed an issue fundamental to the role of journalism: how to cover a compelling drama that was inseparable from an unfamiliar and deeply technical language—how to make the inherently arcane simple without over-simplifying it.

Aviation has its own coterie of experts. They talk to each other in their own language. Normally, when they do speak for publication, it is to technical journalists. These journalists have an industry audience. Very rarely do they bite the hands that feed them. Industry bosses are treated with uncritical reverence. These reporters are working within a bubble, impenetrable to secular outsiders.

Flight MH370 changed all this. Never before had a pool of inside knowledge been in such demand. And boy, was it was a deep pool: accident investigators, specialists in aviation systems, safety experts and regulators, satellite communications engineers, former government regulators and security officials, aviation lawyers, marine searchers and scientists, airline executives and pilots. Very quickly, reporters and television producers discovered who among the experts could talk succinctly and intelligibly (a rare combination) and who could not.

The most nimble of the experts soon found how to pique the interests of an anchor or a reporter in a two-minute sound bite, and some of them were very good at explaining the technology involved, both in the airplane itself and in the tracking systems that had so manifestly failed. Visual aids were summoned. Flight data recorders were produced and became permanent props in the studio, their workings explored. Maps, frequently based on slender suppositions, were cued up.

However, after two months of wall-to-wall coverage it became clear that the gallery of experts faced the same problem as the actual investigators and all of the journalists: there was too little hard information to sustain the narrative. Increasingly desperate efforts to hold television audiences by flashing up the “breaking news” alert undermined the credibility of that device.

All the problems of covering the story began with its origin, Malaysia. Malaysian authorities had no experience with or aptitude for public accountability, and in this instance thet were suddenly accountable to the whole world rather than their own population. Indeed, fifty years of one-party rule left the country with a political class so used to supine domestic media that they though they could get away with anything. For weeks the information coming out of Kuala Lumpur was, at best, inconsistent and contradictory and, at worst, tainted.

For a while there were recurrent attempts by the Malaysians to spin the story without any apparent basis for the spin—principally that the pilots were involved in a plot to hijack the flight. They supported this theory with selective releases of the patchy radar-tracking of the flight, showing erratic changes of course and altitude, at one point even implying that the 777 had flown under the radar to avoid detection, a physical impossibility for an airplane of such size.

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The media swarm, having exhausted the possibilities of what could be reported from Kuala Lumpur, moved to Perth in western Australia where both the air search for wreckage and the undersea search were directed by the Australian Joint Agency Coordination Centre.

At first, this seemed to be an improvement. Journalists were allowed to fly on some of the missions and the Australians produced a spokesman, Air Marshal Angus Houston, who was measured and knowledgeable in what he said and had a credibility that the Malaysians never established.

Unfortunately he was soon undermined by the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, well-known for racing toward any gathering of TV cameras, who erroneously claimed that the underwater searchers had established the location of the black box flight recorder to within some kilometres.

The air search was called off after several false sightings (which the Malaysians could not resist calling “credible”) and the first phase of the underwater search was declared futile, together with a confession that the much-trumpeted pings which had determined the path of the search were not from the 777’s black boxes but probably from the equipment used in the search. The Australians, moving to a new sector of the ocean, admitted that the next phase of the search could take up to a year. As a result, reporting and public expectations suffered a dreadful, anti-climatic slump.

Ironically, as the reporting ran dry of new material and interest in the fate of the Malaysian Boeing 777 began to wane, nobody seemed aware that the real story had become not what we knew but what we did not know—and why we did not know it. Or, to put it in a less Rumsfeldian way: who was really controlling the information and what was their agenda?

The most serious absence at the heart of the story is any sign that the normal protocols of an air accident investigation have been followed. We know that the case is being worked by investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S., the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in the U.K., the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and, briefly because they left after a month of advising mostly on the sea search, the French Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA). All of them are respected, state-of-the-art operations.

But under Malaysian control the investigators have not been able to follow the usual course of making public statements to explain progress—or lack of it. In a normal investigation it is customary to release a preliminary report as soon after the event as possible. This sometimes comes within days, and seldom takes longer than a month. The preliminary report is not to explain the causes of an accident but to give a precise account and record of the circumstances: the type of airplane, its age and maintenance record, the names and qualifications of its crew, the history of the flight up to the point of the crash.

Instead, the Malaysians adopted a policy of feeding virtually useless scraps to the public. Their so-called preliminary report on the accident was highly selective and perfunctory, a ragbag of unconnected documents without analysis. Moreover, it raised more questions than it answered. For example, it confirmed that there was a large consignment of lithium-ion batteries in the cargo, but the airline was able only to name the shipper, not the manufacturer. Later, responding to pressure from the families of passengers, the Malaysians did release a file of data used by the satellite operator Inmarsat to establish the probable flight path of Flight MH370 into the Indian Ocean. However, this proved to be so arcane that only a handful of experts could interpret it and, in any case, it added nothing to our knowledge of what happened.

Malaysia’s neighbor, Indonesia, offers a model of how this should work. In April 2013 a Boeing 737 operated by the budget carrier Lion Air crashed into the sea just short of the runway at Bali’s international airport. Nobody on board was killed, but the massive plane was destroyed. Within a month Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee had issued a preliminary report clearly describing the accident and making three safety-related recommendations for immediate action.

To be sure, this was an accident that occurred in plain sight with hundreds of witnesses, not an airplane that disappeared without any witnesses. Nonetheless it is the Indonesian investigation’s professionalism and sense of public accountability that stands in contrast to the serial obfuscation in Kuala Lumpur.

In addition to keeping the public hanging, the protocols of the Malaysia investigation have also served to silence the commercial parties directly involved: Boeing, Rolls Royce, who manufactured the engines, and Malaysia Airlines.

Boeing can rightly argue that they cannot make any material comments during an investigation precisely because they are an involved party. We can assume that they are as anxious as anyone to understand whether the airplane itself played a role in what happened; the pressure to explain an unprecedented disappearance surely prevails over self-interest. However, what has really shocked the public is that in an age when the smallest package can be tracked to destinations all over the world an airliner apparently cannot be. Boeing has not come forward to make recommendations to re-equip its airplanes with better tracking technology.

And it is the revelation that an airplane can disappear like this that frames the mystery and leaves the story of Flight MH370 open to wild speculation. A former Malaysian prime minister even suggested that the airplane had been abducted by the CIA by remote control. Another report, called in to the FAA and passed by them to the FBI alleged to have evidence that the 777 had landed at Banda Aceh on the northwestern tip of Indonesia where it was taken to a mysterious hangar and all the passengers and crew executed.

In the face of such fantasies it is difficult for reporters to remain focused on what little verifiable evidence there is. So much happens out of sight. There were no reporters out in the Indian Ocean during the first deep sea search by the Australian vessel Ocean Shield, and the Chinese, who are deeply invested in the search because so many of their nationals were aboard the flight, are saying nothing about their continuing role.

The professional investigators are working without one scrap of wreckage, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing for them to investigate.

Above all, any investigation must answer one salient question: are we seeing some kind of failure that we have never seen before and that could happen again? That includes not just a mechanical flaw in the airframe or the engines, but the performance of the pilots, of the air traffic control system, and airport security.

Nobody wants to know the answer to this more than the airlines that operate fleets of Boeing 777s. For example, the largest operator of 777s is Emirates, based in Dubai. Its president, Tim Clark, is not happy with the conduct of the investigation. He told Aviation Week: “There have been many questions unanswered or dealt with in a manner that is unacceptable to the forensic nature of the inquiry.

“Something is not right here, and we need to get to the bottom of it. I need to know how anybody could interdict our systems. This aircraft was disabled in three primary systems. To be able to disable those requires a knowledge of the equipment which even our pilots in Emirates don’t have. Somebody got on board and knew exactly what they were up to.”

This would seem to refute the new report that the captain alone would have been able to disable all the systems. Clark has a high reputation; under his direction Emirates has become the largest international carrier in the world. He evidently believes that control of the 777 was taken over by somebody who gained access to the cockpit. The three systems he refers to are the transponder, the standard link between every airliner and the ground that constantly reports its position, the Aircraft Communications and Addressing Reporting System, ACARS which, in the case of the Malaysian 777 was programmed to send data on the condition of the airplane’s systems every 30 minutes, and the electronic brain center of the 777, its Airplane Information Management System (AIMS), located in the electronics bay beneath the cockpit.

Significantly, Clark’s analysis, if accepted, would predetermine the focus of a criminal investigation; it narrows the suspects to a person or people with unusually specialized knowledge of the airplane’s systems. If indeed this is the direction of a criminal investigation in Kuala Lumpur it is in the hands of the Malaysian police, not the technical investigators, and we would have to assume that the Malaysians would call in assistance from other agencies with a lot more experience in security and terrorism than they have.

The FBI were enlisted to investigate the background of Captain Shah, the pilot. The hard drive of Captain Shah’s computer, part of a flight simulator that he had created in his own home, was sent to the FBI labs in Washington DC for analysis. Nothing sinister was found, even though according to the new report from London, incriminating data that had been deleted was recovered and indicated that he had rehearsed a sudden change of course.

An essential beginning to an investigation of this kind would be profiling of every passenger. But we know as little about the criminal investigation as we do about the technical investigation. The full passenger list was published by Malaysian Airlines on their website, but it has recently disappeared—the airline says as part of a “spring cleaning” of the site.

The passengers included 153 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, 7 Indians, 6 Australians, 5 Indonesians and a few of other nationalities including two Iranians who were traveling on stolen passports. There was an initial media frenzy over the Iranians until Interpol established that they were asylum seekers headed to Europe by a route where it was unlikely their false passports would be detected—a fact that in itself spoke to the laxity of airport security in Kuala Lumpur, and was borne out by other examples of minimal scanning of passengers as they boarded.

The problem with the Tim Clark scenario is the absence of motive. There was never any message from the cockpit announcing a hijacking or of any political motive. The 777 was able to fly on for another seven hours with all its systems apparently flawless until it ran out of fuel. There has never been a hijacking where the perpetrators remained mute.

However, the Malaysians themselves remain mute on other crucial details that have a bearing on the investigation. If a criminal investigation is under way, the crime scene has an exact location and timeline.

First, the location. Everything that could have presented a weakness in security happened in two places. The first was between the airport security checkpoint and boarding—within about 40 minutes of the 777 leaving the gate. The second, for a longer period, was on the tarmac in what is technically known as “airside” where the security regime has to effectively screen the ground staff, the inspection and loading of the cargo, the screening of the catering staff, the delivery of the catering to the galleys, and the fueling of the airplane. Well before any of this happened, the passenger manifest should have been checked through a computer to look for red flags on the background of passengers. We know nothing of how efficiently, or otherwise, any of these tasks were performed.

As for the timeline for the flight itself there were problems from the beginning.

The tripwire for an unfolding plot to take control of the flight would be the transponder, operated by a switch beside the pilots.

A crucial problem was confusion about when the last message came from the pilots. Originally the Malaysians said that the last words from the cockpit, as the airplane left Malaysian air space, came at 1:30 a.m. The transponder’s signals disappeared at 1:22 a.m. This left the clear implication that the calm handover by the pilots covered up the fact that they must already have known that the transponder was no longer working.

Then, some 10 days later, the Malaysians revised their story, saying that the last message from the cockpit came in fact at 1:19 a.m., three minutes before the transponder quit. As for the data bursts sent automatically by the ACARS, they had been sent normally at 1:07 a.m. but failed to appear at the next scheduled time of 1:37 a.m. “We don’t know when ACARS was switched off,” confessed the Chief Executive of Malaysia Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.

This revised timeline did seem to establish that whatever unfolded to first divert the 777 from its assigned flight path to Bejing was restricted to a relatively narrow window between 1.22 a.m. and 1.37 a.m. when the ACARS should have kicked in—just 15 minutes in which the course of the 777 changed and it began its long, silent flight to its end in the southern Indian Ocean.

However, to use the phrase “switched off” in relation to the transponder and the ACARS was in itself prejudicial. It implies deliberate human intervention. An objective investigator would say, simply, that the systems “failed” and leave open the question of whether the failure was the result of human action or mechanical failure. Experts differ on the stress that should be given to the one scenario or the other, but not on the fact that both remain open to investigation until either one can be discounted on the strength of evidence.

As things stand, the mystery of Flight MH370 remains a lot more mysterious than it needs to be as a result of the lack of communication and transparency in Kuala Lumpur that so alarms airline chiefs like Tim Clark and the many other operators of the Boeing 777. It also seriously hampers the best efforts of reporters everywhere, and gives fuel to their worst tendencies.