The mystery of flight MH370 – what happened when it disappeared six years ago?

We explore what may have happened to the Malaysia Airlines plane
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  • When Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished on 8 March 2014, it was like something you’d see in a Hollywood film.

    The plane left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing and simply never arrived. The 239 crew and passengers haven’t been seen or heard from since, baffling experts and shocking the world.

    Six years on, the incident remains one of aviation’s greatest mysteries. But as loved ones grieve, and authorities try to work out what happened, there are more questions than answers. Did it crash? If so, why? Could anyone have survived? How can a passenger jet take off and disappear into the night?

    ‘Good night. Malaysian three seven zero.’

    Holidaymakers, backpackers, businessmen and women and workers piled onto Flight MH370 late one evening in March 2014 for the six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Among them were a group of Chinese calligraphers, a martial arts expert, an engineer, a couple returning from their honeymoon and a construction worker who hadn’t been home in a year.

    Aged from 24-months to pensioners in their 70s, from 14 different countries and all walks of life, those on board represented a mix of people, but one thing they all had in common was that none were ever going to arrive home.

    They would never be seen again, dead or alive, and their fate remains a mystery.

    When did flight MH370 disappear?

    ‘There simply has never been another mystery like this,’ said Jeff Wise, aviation expert and author of The Taking of MH370. ‘Over 200 people simply vanished, and six years later, no one can say with any certainty what happened.’

    Just 40 minutes into the flight, around 1am, as the air hostesses would’ve been serving food and drinks, the plane’s transponder was turned off and it disappeared from civilian flight tracking.

    Using military radar, the plane was tracked as it diverted from its north-east route to Beijing and instead flew south west, before turning again heading north west towards India. Only, as it flew close to Phuket in Thailand, the radar cut out.

    Malaysian authorities later revealed the last words from the plane were to air traffic control: ‘Good night. Malaysian three seven zero.’

    At 7.24am the following morning, Malaysia Airlines issued a statement to say Flight MH370 was missing and a huge rescue mission was underway. The Malaysian government mobilised its aviation department, air force, navy and Maritime Enforcement Agency and within two days, with the support of the international community, 34 aircraft and 40 ships had set out to find the missing plane.

    Mystery of flight MH370

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    The search for  flight MH370

    While some believed that the plane continued to mainland Asia, others claimed it turned yet again and flew toward Australia. Satellite ‘pings’ from the aircraft suggest it continued flying for around seven hours after its fuel would’ve expected to run out.

    Months went by with no leads, until, more than a year later, in July 2015, part of the wing of a Boeing 777 was discovered on the coast of Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean. The following day, a damaged suitcase was found. Later, a Chinese water bottle and an Indonesian cleaning product were found in the same area.

    Weeks later, investigators revealed they believed the plane’s controls were manipulated to take it off course, but they didn’t know by who, or why. Experts claimed that the Boeing’s wing flaps were retracted when it smashed into the sea in March 2014, meaning it was out of control when it hit the water.

    No closer to the truth

    From conspiracy theories involving Russia, to suspicions of terrorism and fingers pointing at the pilot, speculation around the flight has not dimmed.

    In January 2019, an Indonesian fisherman claimed he saw the plane falling into the sea ‘like a broken kite’.

    ‘Most of the theories are just vaporous imaginings for which there is no evidence,’ says Wise. ‘There are only two possibilities that match evidence – either the pilot took it, or it was taken by sophisticated hijackers who were aboard the plane. Either way, we can’t say for sure.’

    Search operations ended in May 2017, more than three years after MH370 disappeared, yet we are still no closer to knowing the truth.

    Mystery of flight MH370

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    Famous aviation tragedies

    Solo pioneer

    American Amelia Earhart was the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932 but, five years later, her plane disappeared as she flew across the Pacific Ocean. Her body was never found but, in March 2018, bones found on an island in the Pacific were believed to be hers.

    Alien activity

    Several ships and planes have vanished in the triangular area surrounded by Miami, Bermuda and Puerto Rico in the North Atlantic Ocean, including Flight 19, a US Navy bomber in December 1945 and a Douglas DC-3 aircraft, with 32 people on board, in 1948. Dubbed ‘The Bermuda Triangle’ the disappearances have been blamed on paranormal activity.

    Extraordinary survival

    In October 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 disappeared while crossing the Andes. Seventy-two days later, after all 45 on board were presumed dead, 16 survivors were found. The story of how starvation drove them to eat dead passengers was made into film Alive.

    Devastating malfunction

    In August 2005, a faulty door on the Helios Airways Flight 522 travelling from Cyprus to Prague meant pressure inside the cabin gradually decreased. By the time the pilot alerted a ground engineer, he was already suffering the effects of a lack of oxygen. Two fighter jets were sent to intercept it but the plane crashed into mountains near Athens, killing 121.

    Mystery of flight MH370

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    MH370 Conspiracy theories

    Russian involvement?

    Some people have claimed that Russia was involved in the hijacking of MH370 in an attempt to try to hurt the West.

    Hijacked?

    Whether terrorists acting alone or as part of a wider political plot, rumours were rife that the plane could have been taken deliberately.

    Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah

    Then Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said it was ‘very likely the captain planned this’ to ‘create the world’s greatest mystery’. Others believe a ‘troubled and lonely’ Captain Shah deliberately soared to 40,000ft so his jet would de-pressurise and passengers suffocate before he crashed into the ocean.

    Victims’ mobiles ringing

    Relatives of the victims described how they could still hear the ring-tone of loved ones’ mobile phones when they called them up to four days after the crash. Some have taken this as evidence that MH370 couldn’t have smashed into the Indian Ocean.