Marking the 9th anniversary of the disappearance of flight MH370, Netflix’s three-part investigation of the factors underlying the biggest aviation mystery of all time is curiously-titled. For, as the series makes clear, it is the fact that MH370 reappeared that makes the case so baffling. And herein lies a tale…
The circumstances, well-known nine years on, are these. MH370, a Malaysian 777-200 aircraft flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, vanished on March 8th 2014 after sending a final, routine, sign-off message to Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control. It was an apparently routine red eye flight until its arrival at waypoint IGARI at the boundary between Malaysian and Vietnamese Air Traffic Control space. And here, the plane…well…disappeared…
Thus far the series, then, seems well-named. But here’s the twist. Later, at 18.25 UTC, having apparently turned back and flown over Malaysian territory at more-or-less right-angles to its intended route, flight MH370 reappeared. More specifically, having apparently been turned off, the satellite communication system was turned back on again making the plane visible once more. By whom or for what reason is unknown. After all, having taken a plane and made it, to all intents and purposes, invisible, why would you ‘de-cloak’ it again? Whatever the reason, MH370 reappeared: at least to UK satellite company INMARSAT, who were able retrospectively to reconstruct a flight path which ended at a point in the Southern Indian Ocean several hours after the initial disappearance at IGARI.
I was one of a sizeable number of people who followed the case from the beginning. We juggled theories online: high-tech websleuths trying to work out what could possibly have happened. Many of us ended up swapping comments on Jeff Wise’s blog; and, indeed, Wise takes up the lion’s share of the interview time across the three parts of the Netflix documentary along with researcher Florence De Changy, wreckage-hunter and ‘adventurer’ Blaine Gibson, aviation expert Mike Exner and INMARSAT executive Mark Dickinson. It sounds like a stellar line-up, but research reveals that several MH370 experts flatly refused to appear, including Richard Godfrey whose WSPR tracing technology has in recent years confirmed and refined much of the existing tracking originally produced by INMARSAT. Godfrey’s criticism, that the series is ‘sensationalist and speculative’, has been echoed by others and during the documentary itself Mike Exner shows himself to be critical of Wise and De Changy – “These are people who do not understand the facts or the data” – whilst Mark Dickinson declares it “hurtful” that INMARSAT should be accused of manipulating data in ways that some – including some of the series’ participants – have suggested.
In truth, the series failed to add anything we didn’t already know. And critics who have been disdainful of its ‘sensationalist’ tone have not always been careful enough to determine exactly what it contains. For example: the charge that INMARSAT somehow fabricated their own data doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Jeff Wise, for example, makes clear during the second episode that any ‘spoofing’ that was done was a result of actions carried out by the perpetrators themselves in the plane’s avionics bay: accessible, incredibly, by anybody in the aircraft via a hatch situated next to the forward galley (and hence on the passenger side of the cockpit door). Further, in the months following the vanishing of MH370 some INMARSAT employees showed themselves to have been open to the possibility that they had been, somehow, spoofed. In a BBC interview in the aftermath of the disappearance, for example, INMARSAT engineer Alan Schuster-Bruce admitted that one of the first concerns they’d had was that the data trail “could just be a big hoax that someone…played on INMARSAT.” INMARSAT’s VP for aviation David Coiley was similarly guarded, asserting that the company was “confident that this data is correct assuming that there is no way this data has been spoofed.” (Emphasis mine). Despite later company comments rowing back from the ‘spoof’ possibility, it is clear that in the aftermath of the disappearance there were those within the company that had considered the possibility of a spoof: but one done to them, not – obviously – by them.
Elsewhere, some of the assertions made during the series point to genuine puzzles: questions that have yet to receive convincing answers. One ‘breakthrough’ moment in the investigation occurred on July 29th 2015 when the right wing flaperon was found on a beach on the French island of Reunion. Whilst drift modelling appeared to show that this discovery was consistent with the piece having started its sea journey in part of the Southern Indian Ocean where the INMARSAT data revealed the plane’s terminus to have been, the flaperon itself presented genuine puzzles: not least its missing identification plate. De Changy rightly draws attention to this during the Netflix series. The identification plates are designed to stay in place during the harshest of circumstances, but are routinely removed when an aircraft is broken up. It is not sensationalist to point out the oddity of the Reunion flaperon missing such a part.
Neither is it sensationalist to point out, as Jeff Wise did, the sheer statistical improbability of Malaysian Airlines having lost two 777s in rapid succession in 2014: first MH370 on March 8th and then MH17, shot down over the Donbass region of Ukraine on July 17th. This could, of course, just have been a ‘coincidence’, but given the mass of uncertainty which remains over the first incident, it seems quite reasonable to probe for a possible link between that and the second one. Given its concern to explore the MH370 mystery, the series devotes relatively little attention to MH17, yet the exploration of some sort of connection might have yielded something interesting. Perhaps a Ukrainian connection links both tragedies. There is nothing sensationalist in at least suggesting such a thing.
Nine years on, the mystery of MH370, largely, remains. As the series makes clear, a number of ocean searches have been undertaken – some at the searchers’ own expense – but the only wreckage ‘finds’ remain those that have resulted from the pieces being washed up on beaches. The relatively small size of most of these suggests that, whatever the cause of MH370’s disappearance, its end was a catastrophic one. In the meantime, as the series again makes clear, the relatives and friends of those on board remain in limbo, unable to begin the process of grief and closure, as lost in their own way as those that boarded the tragic flight at Kuala Lumpur. And this, desperately sad as it is to watch, is the real strength of ‘MH370: The Plane That Disappeared’: a reminder that the victims of this tragedy extend far beyond the souls that perished on board.
Jeff Wise, The Taking of MH370, The Yellow Cabin Press, 2019.
This article originally appeared in Fortean Times 432, June 2023, pp. 52-3