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Where’s the Plane? The Science Behind Malaysia Airlines 370 (MH370)

Planes don’t just disappear. On March 8th, 2014, people all around the world said some version of that sentence to themselves as global media outlets began running stories about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) almost nonstop. MH370, a flight from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital) to Beijing (China’s capital), disappeared after a routine takeoff and climb to cruising altitude on March 8th. Malaysia Airlines isn’t the kind of big name that draws international recognition — it’s no Qantas, Emirates, or American Airlines — but any major airline whose plane seemingly evaporates while in flight is going to draw attention. Three years later, MH370 remains missing, with only piecemeal, probabilistic accounts of what might have happened that day being the only means of understanding for the grieving families of those on board the plane, and for the rest of the world looking on from the outside.

Given the vast technological infrastructure and decades of scientific research that have made the airline industry a global powerhouse, it seems impossible that an airplane could disappear. Sure, a plane might experience technical malfunctions that thwart easy explanations. Air crash investigators still can’t fully account for the instigating event that caused the fire that brought down Swissair Flight 111 in 1998, for instance. A well-designed plane could even crash for surprising, human error-based reasons, as in the case of American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001. But excepting certain Amelias Earhart, planes don’t outright vanish, with no explanation for the disappearance. Even in the case of Air France Flight 447 in 2009, the flight whose demise mirrors the events of MH370 most closely for the time being, investigators were able to locate and then salvage the wreckage of that plane from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after two years. For now, the only pieces of MH370 that have been found were located on small islands and coasts in southern Africa. MH370, even with some of its pieces found, remains a ghost plane.

M370 poses a host of questions for air travelers, airline regulators, and airlines all around the globe. Could this happen again? Do we need to improve the satellite communication capabilities of our airplanes to better account for (admittedly unusual) instances like MH370? Are there enough safeguards in the cockpit and in crew resource management to prevent the numerous possible events that could have taken place in the cockpit which allowed for MH370’s disappearance? If one reads any piece written about MH370, after the main events of the plane’s disappearance are described, all of the other sentences morph into frantic hypotheticals, all of which add up to one simple yet confounding question that three years of investigation have not solved: What happened?

As the story of MH370 remains unfinished, the hypotheticals are inevitable. In the face of such a perplexing and upsetting airline disaster, people rush to any explanation, no matter how fantastical. Don Lemon of CNN famously even speculated on live national television that the events of MH370 could be a parallel to the TV show LOST. There’s a paradoxical logic to absurd guesswork like Lemon’s: with no satisfactory explanation available, even the most ludicrous accounts seem reasonable because, well, who can say? The work of air crash investigators, insofar as they have yet to find the wreckage of the plane, largely operates on proving negatives, rather than positives. Investigators can say with some confidence, for instance, that a fire in the cockpit was unlikely. But for an airline industry bent on perfect its safety standards, to say nothing of a global public who wants to get on an airplane with the comfort of knowing that their flight won’t vanish, negatives are not enough. The world must know what happened to MH370. But earlier this year, the officials conducting the investigation for the plane’s wreckage in the South Indian Ocean suspended the search, citing too few results for the mission’s hefty $160 million USD price tag. We must know, yet we seemed doomed to never know.

The tragedy of MH370 doesn’t negate the impressive scientific and technological advancements that power the aviation industry, but it does reveal that, as with all technology, there is significant room for improvement. In this article, we here at Science Trends will break down what we know happened with MH370 thus far, the popular theories to explain what happened, and above all else how it could be possible for a major corporate airliner like MH370 to disappear from the world. Travelers around the world still have good reason to put faith in the science that goes into airplanes, as the industry is safer now than it has ever been. But knowing the limitations of air travel can also help air travelers better understand what they’re doing when they strap themselves in to launch into the air, and more importantly it can facilitate the much-needed improvements that will prevent the next MH370 from happening.

One Fateful March 8th: What We Know About MH370

Like many stories of airline disasters, MH370’s tale begins unassumingly. Everything about the boarding and take-off of the plane was normal. The flight left at 12:42 Malaysia time, aiming to jet through the inky night for an early morning arrival in Beijing, around 6:30 AM. After takeoff the pilots, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, received clearance to ascend to flight levels 180 (18,000 feet) and then to its cruising altitude of 350 (35,000 feet). MH370 hit those marks. Then, at 1:19 AM on the morning of March 8th, the Captain said to Malaysian air control over radio, “Good night, Malaysia three seven zero.” He, and then the plane, disconnected from the world.

The flight path of MH370 involved coasting through Vietnamese airspace, meaning that the pilots would need to contact the air traffic control on the ground to ensure that the flight was taking its ordinary path. But the six routine words spoken by the Captain as a farewell to Malaysian air would be the last that anyone in any country heard from MH370. Another pilot in Vietnamese airspace at the time of MH370’s sudden radio silence attempted to contact the plane, to no avail. The same fate befell anyone else who tried to reach out to the quiet plane.

From this point on in the story of MH370, all that anyone knows derives from satellite data, the technological crux of the missing plane. Below is a map depicting the flight path taken by Malaysia airlines, only insofar as its location was able to be confirmed by radar:

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Almost immediately, MH370 turns around. Just over an hour later, Malaysian military radar pegged the plane heading east toward the Andaman Islands, a small collection of islands under India’s purview. Wherever the plane went after this final identification point is entirely up to interpretation. Data amassed in the following weeks and months, but no definitive answers revealed themselves amidst all the numbers and satellite pings. In its unprecedented nature, its surprising ambiguity, MH370 immediately became — and still is — the biggest science project ever mounted by aviation investigators. The information is ample, the hypotheses equally prolific. Yet with no one having yet laid eyes on the wreckage of that plane — though some have claimed to, with dubious credibility — this is a science project where all hypothesis mutate into a giant question mark. Even the sensible theories feel unsatisfactory.

Why Can’t We Find the Plane?

“Certainly,” many people thought to themselves after MH370 vanished, “We can use the wide range of satellites we have all around the world! What about air traffic control agencies? What about GPS?” All of these are valid questions, which highlights the abnormality of the MH370 case. The first thing one must tell herself when examining the information regarding MH370 is this: this is not a normal airline accident. In a data set comprising the rate of airline accidents between 1959-2015, airplane manufacturer Boeing includes this chart tracing the rate of fatal airline accidents (that is, resulting in death) in the aforementioned 56 year span:

(Source: Boeing)

The phrase “flying is the safest form of travel” sounds like something concocted by a PR firm trying to sell seats, but statistically it’s a truism. Because airlines have hundreds of people onboard their flights, they need to ensure that every single contingency is accounted for before takeoff. Consider this: when most people get into their car to drive, they don’t check all of the main parts of the car’s functionality to ensure it’s working. They don’t have a team of mechanics confirming the car’s road-readiness. Most are happy to just get in and drive. Airlines, by contrast, triple and quadruple check everything. Sending an aluminum tube with wings into the air is no small thing. Part of why MH370 startled the world has to do with the safety practices of the airline industry. Were airplanes a riskier form of travel, MH370 wouldn’t have been the permanent headline that it was in global news. MH370 reminds us that even the most well-prepared will eventually be taken by surprise.

The cavalcade of questions that followed MH370’s disappearance identified the right problem: radar and satellite data. The reason MH370 couldn’t be communicated with has to do with its transponder, a device that facilitates communication with air traffic control on the ground. Just after the point of the MH370 captain’s final words to Malaysian air traffic control, the plane’s transponder goes dead. Radar, which operates by reflecting radio waves off of the exterior of the plane, could give some useful information about the plane, but the full range of the plane’s interaction with the ground was severely curtailed by the transponder’s silence. Crucially, the transponder failure was not in any way accompanied by a distress signal from the plane, a fact that must be accounted for in any theory of the plane’s disappearance.

Location also poses a vexing problem for air traffic investigators. Of all of the places in the world where a plane could get lost, the oceans surrounding Malaysia, Indonesia, and the other neighboring southeast Asian Islands are a particularly rough spot. Satellites and GPS do canvass the majority of Earth’s land mass, but the planet comprises 71 percent water, which makes stretching radar coverage over the whole globe near impossible. Flying over radar-free stretches of water was so daunting that, in its infancy, the airline industry had strict rules about how long planes could fly over bodies of water without a nearby diversion airport that a plane could land at in the case of an emergency. It wasn’t until 1985, when the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave Trans World Airlines permission to fly direct from Boston to Paris — which involves flying over parts of the Atlantic without nearby airports — that long-haul flights over communication-free ocean space became an international norm. The certification given to Trans World is called ETOP, meaning “Extended-Range Twin-Engine Operational Performance Standards,” which opened the doors to the 10+ hour international flights taken by passengers daily in the 21st century. (For more on ETOPS, see Wendover Productions’ useful explanatory video.)

If MH370 were to have gone north after its final radar capture, it would have likely been picked up by air traffic control in India or other countries along the northern part of where MH370 disappeared (although there is a potential explanation for how this could be done without detection — more on that at the end of this article). More likely, however, is that the plane went to the west (the direction it was headed during its final military radar ping, and the direction where bits of wreckage were found off the coast of southeast Africa) or to the south, toward the lower part of the Indian Ocean. The latter is where the bulk of the search for the plane’s wreckage has taken place. It is no surprise that the authorities fared so poorly in their search of MH370 in the South Indian Ocean, off of the coast of Australia. No place is worse for a plane to disappear than in the deep sea, where radar is out of reach, and there are no air traffic control representatives that could have connected with the plane in its final moments.

Yet MH370’s hopes didn’t entirely go away once it went out of radar range. The English firm Inmarsat, in conjunction with the Malaysian government, released a series of intriguing satellite data weeks after MH370’s disappearance. Inmarsat, which utilizes over a dozen orbital satellites to provide telecommunication services to people on Earth, found that MH370 was still communicating with its satellites even after its fateful radio silence. These communications between the plane’s satellite data unit (SDU) and Inmarsat’s satellites, called “handshakes,” provide investigators with critical but not definitive clues about the plane’s whereabouts.

Inmarsat’s satellites and MH370 were communicating on the ground just before takeoff, but the connection was lost for nearly an hour, from 1:07 to 2:03 Malaysia time. Three minutes after the last radar detection by Malaysian military radar at 2:02 AM Malaysia time, MH370’s SDU kicked back on, and initiated a “log-in” message with Inmarsat’s satellite network. This is the first of the seven “handshakes” shared by the satellites and MH370, which were mediated by an Inmarsat ground station in Perth, Australia. Five of the seven handshakes came from the ground station. The seventh and final handshake occurred at 9:15 AM Malaysia time, long after the plane was expected to arrive in Beijing. Like the first handshake, the seventh handshake was a log-in request, suggesting that the plane had lost power and the SDU had rebooted. From this valuable if threadbare data, investigators suspect that the initial handshake from MH370’s SDU happened after the plane’s power came back on due to an unknown “power disturbance.” The final handshake, a log-in request, came about around the time that airline experts calculated that the plane would run out of fuel, after which reserve power would kick in and reboot the SDU.

The picture painted by the Inmarsat data is grim. If the official interpretation is accurate, MH370 faced a massive power disturbance potentially related to but at the very least during its change of course, after which it flew without any input from the pilots until it crashed into the ocean upon spending all its fuel. This explanation, of course, poses its own series of seemingly impenetrable questions.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Above all else, the Inmarsat data can’t tell investigators where the flight is precisely. The handshakes don’t reveal location directly; that must be ascertained by calculating how long the handshake took to be received, in addition to the angle at which the handshake hit the satellite. What the data gives investigators is a range, represented by the red line in the arc above. Either MH370 curved north, whereupon it would run out of fuel in Kazakhstan after flying unattended for several hours, or it would curve south and run out of fuel over the frigid waters of the south Indian Ocean. Based on the information collected, the latter is the likelier account, and the search areas designated on the map above reflect that. The flaperon (part of the plane’s wing) piece found on the shores of the French island Réunion further affirms the suspicion that the plane crashed in the Indian Ocean.

Due to the advanced scientific technology owned by Inmarsat, investigators have concrete, if thin, probabilistic account of where the plane ended up. That the plane’s wreckage hasn’t been found isn’t a knock on Inmarsat’s data; even in the case of AF447, where the likely (and eventual) general location of the plane’s wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic was known, it still took two years to excavate the plane. Rescuing airplane corpses from the bottom of the sea is a Herculean feat in terms of manpower and finance. MH370 ranks highly in the short list of airline disasters, and it will undoubtedly rank even higher in expense spent on its recovery.

Where Do We Go From Here? Some Theories

Because of its status as the most unlikely airplane disaster in history, MH370 has unsurprisingly spawned a cottage industry of conspiracy theories, the surface of which is only barely scratched by the aforementioned instance of Don Lemon likening MH370 to LOST on national television. The range of theories explaining MH370, from the logical if uncertain to the outrageous but hilarious, is so vast because the incident is unprecedented in its sheer mystery. Not even AF447 vexed investigators as much as this.

While the unending hunger for knowledge about MH370’s whereabouts will not abate until investigators finally rescue the (by all reasonable accounts) crashed plane’s body from (what sure seems to be) the bottom of the ocean, caution is required. Like any scientific pursuit, difficulty must not mean a capitulation to the absurd. One thing is certain about MH370: investigators all over the world have poured countless hours into extracting as much information as possible from what is, at least for the moment, an irrevocably opaque problem. Working with the data we have now, we should continue to seek responsible theories. While aliens, black holes, and fanciful TV shows make for entertaining conspiratorial thought, they make for bad science, and good science is needed in uncovering the mystery of MH370.

In closing out this recap of MH370, here are some of the more plausible theories of the plane’s disappearance to ponder (notice plausible, not satisfying, a feature absent in just about all accounts of the flight):

Plausible Theories On MH370's Disappearance

As with Swissair 111, an onboard fire could have disabled the electronics on the plane at the time of its ascension to its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. Smoke could have incapacitated the pilots, rendering the plane without a guide. Fire is a possibility, but given what we know about the plane’s trajectory it is unlikely. First and foremost, the fire would have had to have been so sudden that the pilots couldn’t have recognized it and sent a distress warning to air traffic control before it got too bad. This also means that the fire would have been potent, such that the plane would not have been able to fly for hours after it lost communication with the ground, meaning the Inmarsat data is incompatible with a fire theory. Secondly, the fire couldn’t account for the plane’s SDU going on and off, nor its continued handshakes with the Inmarsat satellites. Proponents of this theory maintain that the fire would have caused enough damage to subdue the flight crew and passengers without fully undermining the integrity of the plane’s electronics. While in the realm of physical possibility, there is no such precedent for it in airline accident history.
If there were intrepid enough hackers aboard MH370, they could have disabled the plane’s electronics quickly enough to avoid detection by the pilots. Yet MH370’s trajectory doesn’t conform with most terrorist attacks, in which the agents are trying to make a fear-based statement of some kind. MH370 undoubtedly incited fear, but it’s a more generalized fear related to flying, and as far as is known there are no terrorist groups whose sole purpose is to make people uncomfortable about commercial air travel. Where this theory proves most interesting, however, is the idea of…
For some — see here, here, and here — MH370 sure looks like the case of airline automation gone bad. Because airplanes are flown on autopilot for the bulk of most commercial flights, some have come to the conclusion that cyber hackers invaded the plane’s digital infrastructure and took it over. Should this theory prove true, it would be the first cyber heist of a plane in history. There are holes or at the very least fuzzy areas in this theory: for instance, would the pilots have had no means of recourse in fighting against the hackers? What would be the aim of the cyber hackers, apart from being able to say they did it — which, of course, they wouldn’t want to do lest they face the rest of their lives in jail? As with many of the MH370 theories, there are easy ways to see why someone could arrive at this conclusion, but with little evidence and a lack of precedent this remains an intriguing but uncertain theory.
Two years after MH370’s vanishing, New York Magazine published a piece arguing that it had proof that the Captain of the flight flew a “suicide route” quite similar to the route taken by MH370. Although Malaysian authorities denied the validity of the report shortly after its publication, there is precedent in support of NYMag‘s claim. In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean after what plainly appeared to be deliberate action by one of the flight’s First Officers. Egyptian authorities robustly denied that the flight was ended by suicide-by-pilot, yet this did not stop the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the United States’ regulatory body for airline travel, from declaring the flight to be a case of suicide-by-pilot. The NYMag report on MH370 mirrors this account, in that investigators from other countries regularly expressed suspicion about the Captain, which was met with firm resistance by Malaysian authorities. The country has a lot on the line, including its national reputation (Malaysia Airlines was nationalized at the end of 2014) and its narrative about the disappearance. This theory proves compelling logically even as the evidence is not definitive — but, then again, most theories of MH370 fare similarly at this point in time. NYMag‘s article came out a year after the suicide-by-pilot case of Germanwings Flight 9525, giving it a timeliness that still has people intrigued.
On the surface, private pilot and science writer Jeff Wise’s theory about MH370’s whereabouts, published in New York Magazine, reads like the plot of a soon-to-be-released Tom Clancy novel. If his theory holds true, then MH370 flew north into Kazakhstan, not south into the Indian Ocean as is commonly believed. The political ramifications of the Kazakhstan landing are far too complicated to explain here; you’ll have to read Wise’s brilliantly written NYMag piece for all of that. Wise’s bucking of the consensus can make him look like one of the many conspiracy nuts, his clear expertise on the matter and step-by-step reasoning in elucidating his theory could win over even the most ardent skeptic of hist theory. At one point, Wise even admits that he asked his wife the probability of his theory’s accuracy, to which she replied, “Five percent?” Reading Wise’s theory, it’s easy to sympathize with a famous saying of Sherlock Holmes’: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

MH370 is an ultimate scientific quandary: a case with ample data, yet not enough of it. A disaster where we know a great deal, yet we don’t know the linchpin facts. The little certainties we’ve been afforded by the data barely illuminate the full picture lingering — where, who knows? Whether submerged in a watery grave or hidden in a Kazakhstan aircraft hanger, MH370 will continue to require sharp minds and good science, even as it seems to confound both of them.

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