Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, 5 Years Later: The Crucial Clue the Investigators Missed

Figuring out what happened at 6:25 pm GMT, on March 8, 2014, could solve the biggest mystery of modern civilization.

malaysia airlines flight 370 5 years later
Wikipedia / Laurent ERRERA from L'Union, France

Five years ago, on March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport bound for Beijing. 40 minutes later, while cruising at 35,000 feet over the South China Sea, the Boeing 777-200—and its 227 passengers and 12 crew—vanished from air traffic controllers’ radar screens. In his newly-published e-book, “The Taking of MH370,” pilot and science journalist Jeff Wise distills the fruits of five years’ research.

This much we know: Precisely five seconds after MH370 left Malaysia-controlled airspace, someone turned off all of the communications equipment and cranked the plane into a hard left-hand turn. Beneath a clear starry sky, the plane completed a one-eighty, skirted the edge of Thai airspace, and barreled over the Malay peninsula. Hanging a right around the island of Penang, it flew pedal-to-the-metal up the Malacca Strait. Then, an hour and 20 minutes after takeoff, at 18:22:12 universal time, it slipped off military radar coverage.

At this point, MH370 had gone completely dark. It could have flown anywhere in the world and no one would have been the wiser. But then something happened—something that might rank as the strangest part of a very strange story. Two minutes after it slipped out of radar coverage, someone turned the power to an obscure piece of equipment called the Satellite Data Unit, or SDU, back on. One minute later, at exactly 18:25, the SDU finished its reboot process and reconnected with the Inmarsat communications satellite orbiting 22,000 miles over the Indian Ocean.

Over the course of the next six hours, the plane exchanged hourly pings with Inmarsat. These pings didn’t contain any overt information about the location of the plane—this is a communications system, not a navigational one—but by closely examining the associated metadata, scientists were able to extract clues about where the plane had gone. Their analysis led them to a patch of ocean 1,500 miles west of Australia. The plane, they deduced, must be within this area.

Five years later, we know they were wrong. The plane wasn’t there. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent scouring the seabed with the latest technology, only to ascertain that the plane’s endpoint lay nowhere within an area the size of Great Britain. How could this be? The Australian investigators in charge of the search have declared that based on their analysis, the search has exhausted “all prospective areas for the presence of MH370.”

One of their assumptions must have been wrong, obviously. But which one?

Imaginechina via AP Images

Angus Houston, chief coordinator of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, shows a map of the search area during a 2014 news conference.

Curiously, amid the vast expenditure of effort spent in pursuit of MH370, search officials have never adequately grappled with what I see as the case’s central clue: the 18:25 reboot. This, after all, was the event that led directly to the creation of the data that sent investigators on their massive seabed hunt. And it turns out to be awfully weird. So if we want to find a place where the MH370 investigation went off the rails, this should be the first place to look.

Indeed, there are so many reasons to be suspicious of the 18:25 reboot that I find it helpful to divide them into four categories.

1. It Came Out of Nowhere 

In discussing the case, search officials have always treated the existence of MH370’s Inmarsat data as unremarkable. After all, Inmarsat data is something that every plane with a functioning satcom system produces as a matter of course. But the circumstances here are not normal. There’s no reason why even an airline captain, let alone a garden-variety hijacker, would have either the means or the motive to turn this obscure piece of equipment off—and even less so to then turn it back on again. Why would you want to create an electronic signal when up until that point your M.O. has been evasion?

Also weird is the fact that it turned on at exactly the most fortuitous moment. Once the reboot happened, the plane found itself in a highly unusual electrical configuration, with all the communications gear turned off—except for the satcom. There is no discernible reason why anyone—especially a bandit hightailing it out of Dodge—would want to do this. Satellite communications expert Gerry Soejatman told me that it is “very uncommon” for aircraft to fly this way. Indeed, out of the 10,000 planes airborne over the surface of the earth at any given moment, not a single one of them is likely to be running this configuration.

2. It Conveniently Transmitted An Unexpected Clue

Once the authorities had this data set in hand, it happened to contain a subtle clue as to where the plane went. This, too, defied the odds.

The Inmarsat data set consists of the logged metadata of a satellite communications signal. The system is explicitly designed to exclude information about where and how the plane is traveling. Yet when Inmarsat’s in-house scientists examined the data set, they realized that because the system wasn’t working properly, a residue of navigational information had leaked into the communications signal. It was this residue that allowed them to deduce—incorrectly, it turns out—where the plane had gone.

What’s important to understand here is that the vast majority of planes flying around are not going to be leaking navigation information in this way. For that to happen, a bunch of things have to line up. The plane has to be equipped with an SDU manufactured by Thales, rather than the other leading manufacturer, Rockwell Collins; the plane has to be flying under the footprint of a satellite that is past its design lifespan and has run low on fuel; and the path of the plane has to be along a north-south axis.

As I mentioned, most planes don’t leak this kind of subtle clue in their satcom transmissions. The fact that MH370 was can only be viewed as awfully convenient—especially if someone's intention was to throw investigators off your scent.

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3. The Story It Told Couldn't Be Cross-Checked 

Even more suspicious than what the evidence revealed was what it didn’t. Due to the particularities of the situation in which the plane found itself, there was no other evidence available to confirm the clue encoded in the Inmarsat data.

Because the plane had just flown beyond the edge of the Malaysian air-defense system, and because the flight took place late enough at night that Indonesia had turned off its own military radar, MH370’s presumed turn south could not be confirmed by radar.

Because Malaysia Airlines subscribed to the cheapest Inmarsat service available, Classic Aero, the transmissions between the plane and the satellite did not automatically include the plane’s position information.

Because the entirety of the flight track lay under the footprint of a single satellite, its direction of flight could not be confirmed by a log-on with a different satellite.

And because the entirety of its flight track to the south was over open ocean, there was no chance for it to be accidentally observed in transit.

4) When Evidence Later Emerged That Could Have Confirmed The Turn South, It Didn't. 

Starting in mid-2015, pieces of debris started washing up on beaches in the western Indian Ocean. By now, some 30 pieces have been found. Investigators assumed that after more than a year these would be covered in rich colonies of marine organisms, whose makeup would shed light on the path the pieces had taken through the ocean. To their surprise, they found none of them hosted organisms more than a couple of months old. Biologically, that doesn’t make sense—and suggests human intervention. So too does the fact that oceanographers have been unable to come up with a drift model that explains how all the pieces arrived where they did, when they did.

Kyodo via AP Images

Members of the media on Reunion Island, where airplane debris washed ashore in mid 2015.

Finally, if the data and its implications were both valid, then the only plausible perpetrator would be the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah. But apart from a single suspicious flight simulator run found on his home computer, there is nothing about Shah that paints him as a suicidal mass murderer. His family said he was a loving husband and father. His friends said he was a cheerful soul who loved to cook, fly model airplanes, and make balloon animals. His professional record was spotless. His YouTube account consisted of home-improvement videos in which he demonstrated how to fix leaky windows and tweak an air conditioning system to save electricity. Though Muslim, he was no fundamentalist. He criticized terrorists, subscribed to Richard Dawkins’s YouTube channel, and supported democratic reform in Malaysia. Watching him, he seems the most normal guy in the world. Even, it must be said, a little boring—nothing like the handful of other pilots who are known to have deliberately crashed their planes, all of whom had significant emotional or mental-health problems.

So when the Australian, Chinese, and Malaysian governments decided to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to the search of the southern Indian Ocean, they literally did so solely on the basis on the mathematical analysis of a set of numbers whose provenance they could not explain, and whose implications they could not double-check. We know today that their confidence was misplaced. MH370 didn’t go where the scientists had deduced. That means that something must have been awry with the data. But what?

As it turns out, it’s possible for a hypothetical hijacker to tamper with the settings in the SDU in such a way that some of the values it produces will imply that a plane is traveling one way when it’s really traveling another.

Over the years, I’ve asked various individuals within the search team how they could be so confident in the integrity of the Inmarsat data. None was able to rule it out on technical grounds. Instead, I got answers like the one that Mark Dickinson, Inmarsat’s vice president of satellite operations, gave me: The idea is simply too unlikely. For someone to have tampered with the data, “whoever did that would have to have six months' worth of knowledge of what would happen, in essence, have to know how the data would be used," he said. "There’s nothing to show that evidence at all as far as I’m aware.”

I can understand Dickinson’s hesitation. For the perpetrators to fool the search effort by staging an elaborate hoax, they would have to have been significantly smarter than the investigators themselves. In the early days of the search, this seemed outlandish. Then again, back in those days, everyone expected the facts to line up neatly and for a reasonable solution to pop out. That’s off the table. We now know that whatever happened to MH370 must have been extremely odd.

Skepticism about the integrity of the Inmarsat data has been spreading. In 2018, David Gallo, the Woods Hole oceanographer who led the effort that found Air France Flight 447 deep in the Atlantic, wrote on Twitter: “I never thought I’d say this….I think there is a good chance that MH370 never came south at all. Let’s put it this way, I don’t accept the evidence that the plane came south.”

When I reached him on the phone, Gallo told me he was flummoxed by the authorities’ insistence that the Inmarsat data and its interpretation had to be correct. “This is where I got so frustrated,” he said. “The plane’s not there, so what the hell? What’s going on?”

It appears that French investigators share Gallo’s suspicion. According to Ghyslain Watrelos, a family member of three MH370 passengers who has been briefed on the matter, the arm of the French military currently investigating the case has been looking into the integrity of the Inmarsat data. 

“The essential trail is the Inmarsat data,” Wattrelos said. “Either they are wrong [in their analysis] or they have been hacked.”

If the latter is the case, the ramifications are scary. Whoever took MH370 was determined, aggressive, and far more sophisticated than investigators have been willing to contemplate. They have also succeeded in fooling officials, the public, and most of the press for half a decade. That’s an uncomfortable prospect, and one that many people would prefer to ignore. But if it’s true—or even possibly true—then it’s something that needs to be dealt with expeditiously. Because that could mean whoever took MH370 is still out there...and nothing whatsoever has been done to stop them.

You can pick up Jeff Wise's new book, "The Taking of MH370," here.