Four years go, on 8 March 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport bound for Beijing. Fifty minutes into the flight, the aeroplane lost contact with air traffic control. After another 40 minutes, the plane was spotted by Malaysian military radar flying over the island of Penang, a good deal west of its scheduled route. The plane was still out of contact with the ground.
Several hours later, in Beijing, relatives and friends of those onboard were waiting in the airport for the flight to land when an announcement was made that the plane had been delayed. An hour later, a message appeared on the Malaysia Airlines Facebook page, stating that the plane was missing. This was the beginning of a long and tortuous wait for the family and friends, as the fate of Flight MH370 became headline news across the world.
This book caught my eye in the library, because I remembered very well watching the news coverage in the days and weeks following the plane’s disappearance. Curious to know how someone could write an entire book about a missing plane, I picked up the book and took it home with me.
Somewhat to my surprise (I was half expecting a catalogue of detailed and outlandish conspiracy theories) it proved to be a well-researched history of what went on in the days following the plane’s disappearance, interspersed with numerous alarming examples of other flights that have crashed over the years. (I wouldn’t recommend it as reading material for a long-haul flight.)
The Malaysian government was heavily criticised at the time for withholding facts, and for giving out misleading and often contradictory information. They frequently denied this during press conferences, but watching the news it seemed obvious that the investigation was being conducted in a decidedly chaotic manner. As the days ticked by, with relatives waiting desperately for news, several sightings of possible debris were spotted by planes, ships and satellites, only to be discounted when investigated further.
One of the major problems with the investigation was that it seemed nobody knew exactly where to search. Although it was common knowledge that the plane had changed direction during the flight, it wasn’t known how long it may have continued to fly for and where it might have ended up. At one point, the search area extended over land and sea to cover an area one tenth of the Earth’s surface, an area so vast that an effective search seemed an almost impossibly challenging task.
Despite the daunting prospect of trying to find what was often deemed a needle in a haystack, more and more countries gradually joined the search. Towards the end of March 2014, 26 countries were involved in trying to locate signs of the missing plane.
During the weeks following the disappearance new information kept coming to light, but there were so many dead ends and false leads that the relatives became angry and disillusioned. Nearly three weeks after the plane disappeared, the Chinese government allowed a public protest – a very rare event in the country – when families were permitted to march on the Malaysian Embassy, displaying banners and demanding the truth from the Malaysian government.
The book concludes with the author’s own chilling proposition that the plane may have been shot down by accident during joint military manoeuvres in the South China Sea, a long distance away from the search area being targeted. If one of the participating nations (which included both Malaysia and China) had indeed accidentally shot down the plane, there would be good reason for keeping it quiet and misdirecting the search to focus on the South Indian Ocean, a region of deep water and rough seas so hostile as to make any discovery extremely difficult.
Towards the end of the book, which contains details of the underwater search using AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), I was reminded of just how difficult it can be to obtain and correctly identify objects in deep water. Looking on Wikipeida, I found several articles related to the missing plane, including one dedicated to the search operation (which ran into hundreds of millions of dollars and became the most expensive search ever undertaken for a missing plane). I was interested to see that one of the ships involved in the search was one I had been on in my seagoing days. I was never involved in searching for a missing plane, but I do remember seeing sonar images of aeroplane debris lying on the sea floor during my training, and feeling a shiver of horror at the thought of such a watery grave.
The official search was suspended on 17 January 2017, but a year later private company Ocean Infinity resumed it. They are currently surveying a narrowed search area of 25,000km2, believed to be the most likely crash site, and expect to finish their work at the end of April this year. So far, they have found nothing of significance and the mystery of what happened to flight MH370 appears as perplexing as ever.