The Mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 May Never Be Solved—But We Shouldn't Stop Searching

A new Australian news investigation stirs the pot again, pitting speculation against methodical investigation. How long should this go on?

Laurent Errera / Wikipedia

It’s been four years since Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 vanished from the skies with 239 souls on board. Since then, searchers have combed hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean looking for the aircraft, while investigators parsed out every thread of possibility and every byte of data relating to the flight. The result so far has been a massive amount of zilch: A collection of often conflicting theories and a few small pieces of aircraft washed up on beaches around the Indian Ocean. Nobody knows—definitively—what happened to the aircraft, or even where it is. The only consensus: It’s probably in the water. Or not.

This is a modern mystery of global significance. It exposes the limits of the mastery of even our own inventions—how could one of the world’s safest and most high-tech airliners, a Boeing 777, just vanish?—and it reinforces the enormity of our planet. Not only did all the technology in the world manage to lose the aircraft in the first place, but all the technology in the world hasn’t been able to find it. Now, with the current search due to wrap up in a few weeks, there’s a very real possibility that it never will. After all, it took a full two years to find the remains of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean just a few years before—and they pretty much knew exactly where it was from the beginning. No, this is shaping up to be the 21st Century version of the Titanic.

As such, it has drawn enormous, continuous speculation in the form of books, articles, news reports, documentaries, and endless online chatter, ranging from serious discussion to full-blown conspiracy theorizing. The most recent blip in coverage came last weekend, in the form of an hour-long investigation from 60 Minutes Australia that re-heated the pot of speculation—at times convincingly, at times confusingly. The show convened a panel of five experts in aviation and oceanography to discuss the possibility that the aircraft was deliberately crashed by the pilot, presenting it as evidence of a startling new theory. This has received great media attention in the past few days—which is curious, because this theory of ill intent was literally the first thing everyone thought of when the airplane vanished four years ago, and some of the individuals present on the panel have been promulgating the theories similarly from the get-go. (You can watch the show in its entirety in the video embedded at the bottom of this story.)

YouTube / 60 Minutes Australia

The assembled panel.

But the show’s purpose was seemingly to state that murder-suicide is now definitively the most likely scenario. Though at times convincing in this respect, the 60 Minutes panel also left a great many unanswered questions needed to support the theory, including the motivation and incredible skill the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, would have needed to achieve this without detection and with no discoverable evidence, as some panelists argued was his intent. Additionally, the program leaned heavily on the familiar tropes of network news investigations to gin up drama—scary music, digital recreations, interviews with victim families, tense moments inside a simulator, more tense moments between panelists—in such a way that it hints at incompetence on the part of the investigators, though without actually presenting particularly convincing evidence to prove their case. This was clear throughout the program, and while that approach ultimately does a disservice to the cause the panelists are committed to resolving, the conversation also brought out for public debate the question of whether the search, in consideration of the arguments presented, should be expanded—or even continue at all. 

The central figure among the panelists—in other words, the target—was Martin Dolan, former head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. He led the investigation in its early days of Australia’s leadership in the investigation, and represented the most measured and logical voice on the panel. But when he worked to present cautious, non-speculative views of the investigation—while still acknowledging that it was most likely a deliberate act—he was hit with a barrage of speculation from the other participants.

YouTube / 60 Minutes Australia

It’s important to note that the thrust of the conflict on the show wasn’t regarding the pilot’s intent, but whether said pilot controlled the airplane all the way down to the water or if the plane undertook a fast, uncontrolled descent after fuel ran out. (At that point, whether the pilot was dead or simply not interfering with the descent becomes irrelevant.) It’s a relatively minor point, considering all parties present concurred that whatever transpired was deliberate, but the implications are significant: Had the investigators given more weight to the possibility that the pilot controlled the aircraft all the way down to the water rather than letting it spin out of control from a high altitude, then the ATSB’s primary search area would have been expanded to include the extra 100 miles or so the aircraft could have flown in a controlled glide.

In her interrogation, host Tara Brown asked Dolan about the reasoning behind the decision. His response was appropriate, if arguable. “I still think the weight of evidence—which is why the search is being concentrated where it is—is that, for whatever reason, it’s unlikely there were control inputs at the end of the flight, and therefore the aircraft spiraled into the water and crashed,” he said.

“If that’s the most probable scenario to what happened to the plane, why haven’t you found it?” Brown asked.

“That’s a question that’s becoming more pointed as we eliminate more of the search area,” Dolan said. He did this, however, without acknowledging that just because an area has been searched doesn’t mean that the aircraft is confirmed to not be there. To quote Carl Sagan: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This has been true from the beginning of the search, and Dolan made a mistake by not acknowledging this, thereby setting up the investigation to be “proven” wrong simply because the search comes up empty.

“Do you accept the other possibility, that the plane was controlled right to the end?” she continued.

“We’ve always accepted that there was a possibility that that was the case,” Dolan said.

Sounds reasonable, and perfectly in line with his agency’s modus operandi. But the show turned sketchy once the program started focusing on the disagreement about a controlled descent or a “death dive”—but without billboarding the fact that everyone on the panel still agreed the plane was deliberately lost. This was a journalistic error; the show was set up as one thing, but then diverted without clearly spelling that out, potentially confusing the viewer.

Dolan stated the search area was based on data from satellites that indicated a fast descent; they knew while making their search-area decisions that a controlled glide was possible, but the evidence they saw supporting that argument wasn’t convincing. Two of the other panelists—Canadian air crash investigator Larry Vance and Boeing 777 pilot Simon Hardy—thought it was a controlled descent, but their evidence came across as highly speculative. 

YouTube / 60 Minutes Australia

Vance’s argument was that the famous flaperon recovered on Réunion Island near Madagascar didn’t show evidence of a high-speed impact with the device retracted—as would be the case with nobody manning the controls—but rather showed evidence the flaperon was extended to help control a descent, and that the damage was only on the trailing edge of the panel, as though it had been eroded during initial contact with the water. His point was that an uncontrolled landing would have generated millions of parts that would have likely washed ashore by now—but they haven’t. Indeed, he argued that in a high-speed crash, the flaperon would have been destroyed. It simply wouldn’t exist, let alone wash up on Réunion.

That’s a compelling argument, but the problem is that we don’t know what the counterargument is, because Dolan didn’t get a chance to make one—except to say they didn’t have evidence suggesting the flaperon was, in fact, extended. What proof was there it was still retracted? Why didn’t investigators agree that the expanded landing area was worth pursuing? What is their answer for the debris question? 

Also, if Dolan did fundamentally agree that it was a deliberate act, as he stated twice in the program—at one point ruling out an accident as an impossibly remote possibility—what evidence did investigators have that the crash was deliberate to begin with, apart from the absence of clues pointing to an accident? Such insight would have clarified his group’s decision-making process, as would insight into external factors such as search costs.

In spite of all this—and also, generally not being one to take an argument at face value—I still can’t accept the controlled-descent argument until I hear more from Dolan’s side. As a result, I still found myself siding with him as the authority, particularly when he challenged the other panelists to provide concrete evidence for their theories (to which they essentially stammered nonsensically). If I were in charge of determining where millions of search dollars and thousands of man-hours were to be spent, I’d focus on what the satellite data said more than a single piece of debris, as well.

YouTube / 60 Minutes Australia

For his part, Hardy’s contribution to the panel rested on his theories that the pilot deliberately threaded the needle between military radar installations in Malaysia and Thailand in order to avoid detection—though in fact it looked like he just flew a straight line along a border—that he “dipped his wing” at the Malaysian city of Penang in order to say farewell to his home town, and that he deliberately glided the airplane in specifically to ensure it remained intact and would sink intact, thereby minimizing debris and concealing its final resting place. All are pure speculation, of course, feeling more like someone fitting the evidence to the theory than actually presenting a solid argument. Vance could only defend the theory with this: “The pilot wanted it to disappear forever. Never to be seen again, not to be found, forever.” But the pilot was researched and investigated and largely cleared of suspicion, so why?

To be clear, these are still strong theories—some of the strongest yet devised. But they still leave too many questions. How could a seemingly-average pilot concoct such a foolproof plan? Doing so from his desktop flight simulator—a source of intense scrutiny, since it did appear to show a flight in the direction MH370 took—still doesn’t quite pass my sniff test. And while the panel ruled out an accident as an explanation for the airplane’s direction reversal early in the flight, it still seems that some kind of crew incapacitation event is just as plausible as a completely-undetected deliberate flight across thousands of miles of commercial airspace, particularly given that there appeared to be no control inputs after the initial turns.

Of course, other theories still abound, including the idea of hijacking; one possibility with particularly cinematic complexity was researched by pilot and aviation journalist Jeff Wise, and does indeed feel somewhat plausible, if astoundingly far-fetched. (Short version: Russian passengers took over the flight by hacking into the control system and flew it all the way to Kazakhstan.) My own feeling all along has been that the simplest explanation is the most likely. In this case, Occam's Razor suggests a cabin-pressure loss or a cockpit fire incapacitating the crew, but not inhibiting the aircraft’s ability to fly on autopilot until it ran out of fuel—in fact, one pilot who was able to make contact with the aircraft early in its deviations reported he heard just “mumbling”—or something completely unprecedented and equally infuriating, such as both pilots accidentally locking themselves out of the cockpit.

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In the end, Dolan argued that the absence of wreckage discovered may not even truly matter in the long term, at least in terms of aviation safety. He noted that the cost of the continued search may outweigh any benefits from actually finding the aircraft, considering we have enough information now to draw conclusions and make meaningful changes to aviation to prevent such a disaster from happening again. 

The problem there is, that position represents a disinterested government investigation with, frankly, a limited role: to determine facts but not assess blame, something a criminal investigation would do. So while the ATSB and the participating international groups may have learned enough to make aviation safer, those wanting to establish a criminal act in order to hold Malaysian Airlines liable—which is important to do, if the company's own conduct somehow allowed this to happen—have little definitive evidence to go on. The contrary explanations offered up on the program still come up short, which is the risk you take when you pit investigators against speculators.

Where does this leave us? Everyone on the panel—including Dolan, though with the realities of available resources seemingly at the front of his mind—thinks the search should continue, and as far as I'm concerned, they’re absolutely correct. The only way to confirm whether there was a criminal act is to find the airplane and see what can be learned from its remains. Unfortunately, the show didn’t explore the costs or efforts necessary to expand the current search area to look where a gentler final descent would have taken MH370, nor did it address the likelihood of finding the aircraft even if it was in that area. Those are the hard realities of this search, and they’ll likely prevail—until, at least, some future technology comes along, á la the Titanic, or some enterprising independent entity devises a new search methodology and executes it themselves.

Until then, brace yourself for TV shows like this one about Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 every so often until the end of time.