OneZero: The Mystery Behind the Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight Isn’t Solved Yet

William Langewiesche is a titan among aviation journalists. He has covered, in depth, some of the most important air disasters of our time for outlets such as the Atlantic and Vanity Fair. He also has extensive experience as a professional pilot. His credibility on the subject of aviation is, in a word, unmatched. So when he turned his hand to the greatest aviation mystery of our time — the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — there was every reason to hope that he would bring some clarity, at last, to a story fogbound in confusion.

The 10,000 word Atlantic cover story posted on June 17, however, did not accomplish that. Langewiesche writes evocatively, and he wrangles a mountain of information, but he falls victim to a siren temptress: the yearning for a concise and reasonable solution to a deep mystery.

“The simple story is usually the right one,” Langewiesche told me, during one of the many conversations we had while he researched the project. Having immersed myself in the technical arcana of this story for more than five years — first as a CNN contributor, then as a freelancer for New York, Popular Mechanics, and other outlets — I tried to show him that no simple answer can be made to fit the thicket of contradictory evidence that has grown since MH370 vanished on March 8, 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. As the saying goes, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” In the case of MH370, Langewiesche arrives at a solution that requires ignoring or dismissing whole categories of evidence.

It’s not a new solution. Langewiesche hitches his wagon to what has become the default, commonsense explanation, the one which the international authorities responsible for the search have implicitly held — the captain did it. This is a reasonable first pass at a theory of MH370. Since the plane was clearly taken by someone who knew what they were doing, and the only other person locked in the cockpit was the inexperienced first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, then it must have been Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah who purposefully turned the plane around and flew it off into the darkness until it ran out of fuel and crashed in the remote ocean. Case closed.

Ah, but already we run into problems. Why would Zaharie, a financially comfortable suburban dad whose hobbies included making instructional home-repair videos, spontaneously decide to kill not just himself but all 238 other crew and passengers on the plane? Langewiesche acknowledges that there is no clear evidence Zaharie was psychologically capable of such an act, but then gets around this by invoking malevolent forces that must have hushed such evidence up. Langewiesche declares that the Malaysian government was “the most corrupt in the region” and “furtive, fearful, and unreliable in its investigation of the flight.” In his telling, the absence of evidence is taken as proof of a massive cover-up.

To be sure, Malaysia is not Switzerland. It is a still-developing country where overall levels of professionalism and competence can leave something to be desired — a fact that colored the country’s response to the airplane’s disappearance. In particular, the Malaysian military has been only intermittently forthcoming about its radar detection of MH370, and to this day has not revealed all its data. But there is no evidence that the authorities carried out a deliberate whitewash of the overall investigation.

Langewiesche says of the 495-page final Malaysian report that “nothing in the report was of technical value” and that it “was stuffed with boilerplate descriptions of 777 systems.” This is flatly untrue. The report contains a great deal of previously unreleased technical information, including detailed descriptions and analysis of recovered debris, revelatory information about the plane’s cargo, and an exhaustive examination of the plane’s divergence from its planned flight path.

True, this particular report does not go into great detail about the captain’s background, but we know from a leaked report that the police did spend considerable effort looking for any evidence of guilt. According to an internal document not intended to be seen by the public, they were unable to find any.

There are other, more technical, reasons to doubt that Zaharie was the perpetrator. A whole subset of them hinge around the fact that after someone on MH370 turned all the electronic communications devices off, they turned one back on — an obscure piece of equipment called the Satellite Data Unit, or SDU. After the role of this device came to light, I asked several experienced 777 pilots if they knew how to turn an SDU off and on again. They all responded with variations of: “What on earth is an SDU?”

Langewiesche speculates that perhaps the reboot happened because Zaharie turned off all the plane’s electronics, including the circuit the SDU was on, in order to reduce the electrical load on the engines and thereby hasten his getaway. I find this a very hard idea to swallow, and I doubt that any pilot has ever deliberately done such a thing. Doing so would improve one’s performance by a miniscule amount, at the expense of crippling the aircraft in multiple ways. A rough terrestrial analogy would be turning off your headlights on a dark highway to make your car go faster.

Though technically arcane, the SDU reboot is a crucial part of the MH370 mystery, because it was the reboot that led to the six hours of electronic pings that for the first year after the disappearance were the only clues investigators had as to where the plane had gone. Occurring a mere three minutes after the plane flitted out of Malaysian military radar coverage, the reboot put the plane in a bizarre, perhaps unprecedented, electrical configuration. This configuration resulted, by astonishing coincidence, in signals that encoded in a clear but unverifiable way just where the plane was going. (Unverifiable, in the sense that the data did not encode GPS data or other clues that could confirm the validity of the clue.) No plane has ever left this particular kind of electronic breadcrumb trail before, and none ever will again.

Yet investigators accepted the data unquestioningly. They discerned quickly that it fell into two main types. The first, which Langewiesche called “distance value,” allowed them to reconstruct the route that the plane must have followed — or rather, a pair of equally valid solutions, one leading off to the southern ocean, the other Kazakhstan. The second, dubbed by Langewiesche “Doppler value,” indicated that the southern route was the correct one. Hence, investigators had a route and an endpoint. They knew where to find the plane.

One problem: When they looked there, they didn’t find the plane. So they doubled the search area. No dice. They doubled it again, to an area the size of Great Britain. Still nothing. Langewiesche dismisses this failure as inconsequential, saying that “even a narrow swath of the ocean is a big place.” This misses the point. While the ocean is indeed a big place, far too big to probe in its entirety, the data pointed towards a portion of the ocean that was indeed searchable. Electronic signals are mathematical entities which can be analytically deciphered to a calculable degree of precision. Those sent from MH370 indicated that it was in a certain, searchable area of the ocean. It was not. The signals lied.

But how can signals lie?

The fact that the signals contained erroneous information leads, as I see it, to only one possible explanation: it was deliberately corrupted by someone. As it turns out, only planes of a particular type, carrying a particular kind of SDU, on a particular kind of flight path, flying under a particular kind of satellite, and subscribing to a particular level of Inmarsat service, would have been vulnerable to this kind of tampering. MH370 met all these criteria. It’s impossible to say what percentage of planes share the vulnerability, but it can only be a small number. This should have been a red flag for investigators.

As a journalist following the case from the beginning, this certainly was a major red flag for me. It spurred me to consult with technical experts, who said that while part of the signal data could readily be hacked from aboard the plane, other parts could not. This remaining data was enough to generate an approximate flight track indicating that the plane would have traveled north and wound up in Kazakhstan, a Central Asian autocracy that functions as a client state of Russia.

As it happened, just before the disappearance Russia had staged a “hybrid war” invasion of Ukraine that combined standard military assault with information warfare overseen by the GRU (Russian military intelligence). Four months later, the GRU shot down MH370’s sister airplane, MH17, over Eastern Ukraine. The fact that only 15 planes out of the 15,000 or so commercially registered around the world were Malaysia Airlines 777–200s, and that two of them had come to grief in such a short span of time, seemed too unlikely to be mere coincidence. Digging deeper, I found that there had been three Russians onboard MH370, including one whose daughter later wrote on social media that her father was “alive and well.” As I later would write in my book, The Taking of MH370, the mass of evidence taken together strongly suggested that the plane had been hijacked by Russia.

To be sure, this proposition raises the inevitable question: Why? The unsatisfying answer is, we just don’t know. But the evidence that Russia was heavily involved in the destruction MH17 is all but ironclad, and no other definitive explanation for MH370 has yet emerged. The best guess I can come up with is that Russia had decided to embark on a broad, aggressive attack against the West, and these two actions fit into an overall plan that included subverting the Brexit vote, tampering with the U.S. presidential election, poisoning the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain, and much else.

I explained this all to Langewiesche in the course of our many discussions. He rejected it out of hand. One of his objections was that if the plane went north instead of south, then the debris later pulled from the ocean must have been placed there deliberately. That sounds like conspiracy talk — but there is substantial overlapping evidence that this was actually the case. Despite supposedly drifting in the ocean for years, for instance, none of the recovered debris pieces had marine life more than a month or two old. But Langewiesche finds the idea of planting evidence inconceivable — mainly, it seems, because a large proportion of the debris was found by an American named Blaine Alan Gibson. And here, I think, is where his story really goes off the rails.

Gibson is an odd bird, even in Langewiesche’s generous telling. A man with no visible means of support, he travels the world dressed like Indiana Jones, pursuing ancient mysteries and receiving signs from dolphins. Yet for some reason he turns out to be the only human on Earth able to go looking for pieces of MH370 and find them. Indeed, more than half of the recovered debris pieces that have been gathered have been collected by him, personally. Twice, he has performed the feat — a feat that no one on Earth has been able to pull off, no matter how long they’ve been looking (and many people have been looking) — while TV cameras were rolling. I don’t think there’s even a word for how unlikely that is.

Gibson loves to spin yarns about his past adventures, but he is guarded about his particulars. He claims, without evidence, that people have threatened to kill him for his debris-collecting. But if you care to dig there is a lot that you can learn about him — none of it included in Langewiesche’s story. Most interesting to me, given that the multiple neon arrows pointing at Russia, is that Gibson is a fluent Russian speaker who for three decades was the owner of a company called Siberia Pacific, which he founded, with two Russians from Kemerovo Oblast, in 1992.

Langewiesche spends an enormous chunk of his piece talking about Gibson, but doesn’t mention his Russia connections at all. He restricts himself to an uncritical telling of Gibson’s version of events, and that, more than anything else in the Atlantic story, is frustrating to me. Langewiesche first got involved in the topic because I reached out to him in 2017 hoping he’d help me get to the bottom of some curious claims that Gibson had made about a particular piece of debris. In a Facebook post, Gibson had said that locals had handed a piece to him after he visited a village and asked if they had anything that looked like wreckage. Later, he told an independent researcher that he had been visiting the village and saw a 7-year-old girl fanning a cooking fire with it. Then, he told someone else that he had spotted it while having breakfast at his pension; the owner’s daughter had opened a drawstring toy bag, and there it was.

Why was he telling contradictory stories? I wanted to find out, but knew that someone else would have to do the asking. I had been in text communication with Gibson for a long time, and interviewed him over the phone for a New York story in 2016, but he stopped communicating with me after I voiced some of my suspicions about his discoveries on my blog. I figured that given his insatiable appetite for media attention it would be impossible for him to turn down Langewiesche. And so it proved .(Gibson did not respond to a request for comment.)

Many twists and turns later, Langewiesche flew to Malaysia and spent several days hanging out with Gibson. Instead of sorting out his tangled past, Langewiesche fell under Gibson’s spell. The two had long, free-flowing chats. Langewiesche came away convinced that Gibson was an earnest soul.

In the end, of course, if Gibson really is an innocent free spirit who has dedicated his whole adult life, as Langewiesche apparently believes, to the cause of visiting as many countries as he can and “forgoing any chance of a sustained career and subsisting on a modest inheritance,” then his story has really no material bearing on the mystery of MH370 at all. He’s just a lucky eccentric who found a bunch of pieces that don’t really tell us much about what happened to the plane.

If, on the other hand, Gibson made his money as a legal consultant in Russia, as he told a journalist a few years ago, and if his area of professional expertise was the legal restrictions surrounding “secret cities” (i.e. those with nuclear power plants like Chernobyl), as a National Academies document indicates, then maybe he plays an important part in the story after all.

An advantage to being a literary lion is that your authority does a lot of your work for you. You don’t have to detail; you can assert. Langewiesche declares, for example, that “despite theories to the contrary, control of the plane was not seized remotely from within the electrical-equipment bay, a space under the forward galley. Pages could be spent explaining why.” And that’s the end of it. One wonders: if pages could be spent explaining, could not a sentence or two in a 10,000-word story?

There is no doubt that Langewiesche is a great magazine writer who has produced classic works of journalism, but there is something inherently “small-c” conservative about people who have won renown for their sagacity. They need to believe that the world as it exists is the same one in which they earned their laurels. Complicating evidence can be overlooked or ignored. Everything, in the end, must be simple. They shall declare it so.

Note: This story originally appeared on June 28, 2019 in OneZero.

178 thoughts on “OneZero: The Mystery Behind the Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight Isn’t Solved Yet”

  1. @All

    New seabed search this year by Ocean Infinity for 9M-MRO;

    Behind a paywall.

    Also @Ge Rijn seems to have stopped posting since Najib Razak lost Government. Not sure if this is significant. Always posted innocent explanations for the disapperane of 9M-MRO. Also aware @Ge Rijn was banned from Victor’s site.

  2. @SteveBarratt, Thanks for this! I have to say, I find this shocking. What possible justification for a further search area could they have come up with?

    I didn’t know that @Ge Rijn had been banned or gone quiet, and you raise an interesting possibility. I’ve had some sneaking suspicions about some of these characters!

  3. Jeff,

    This is my first comment here so first things first – thank you for doing this, I read your book. My background is industrial root-cause finding. I also served in the military – coincidentally – as an operator in a radar station. I’m not the most informed on the subject but naturally the disappearance of MH370 is quite exciting. Like everyone else I’m biased. But to the point.

    As a journalist/writer you’re attracted by the excitement of “who-did-it.” But in my line of work we start with “what” (not why and who) actually happened, and rank and rate data credibility and dispose it as valid, invalid, or pending validation. Only few findings about MH370 loss I can accept as a valid i.e. facts – a) the loss of the responder signal, the utter absence of communication from the plane that followed b) the absence of debris in the area of the communication loss and c) the delayed emergency response. The rest of what we know about MH370 disappearance is not easy to independently validate – at least not by my standards. So what happened?

    Some for of hijacking. That I can take.

    One thing everyone seems to be ignoring from their theories is the delayed response to the loss. Over this critical delay of the emergency response no hijacker has control. If the response was on time – alarms will be ringing, radars will be searching for the plane, All the alleged plans to fly the plane “over my hometown” and then to the world could fail. No malevolent plan can rely on that improbable delay – it will be too risky and beyond control of the perpetrators. Whoever took the plane, he/she needed to dispose it fast – hide it, crash it, or release it. So any persuasive scenario needs to exclude that delay from the perpetrator’s intended plan. That’s a challenge.

    From my time in a military radar cabin I think the sharp right turn seems improbable. Probably more than half of the time when we report such turns (especially of big blobs) it’s actually a different airplane on a different heading that was mistaken for the original one. All the subsequent variations in the reported height point in the same direction. So I put limited credibility on the military radar data – I suspect either an unreliable data, or a mix between multiple commercial (‘трассевая” is the Russian term) planes. If the military radar technology have not improved dramatically in the last 20 years – in Malaysia at least, probably not – that rings true to me. as I said I’m biased.

    So my best speculation will be that the plane was – as a first step – “hidden,” and hidden it was quite fast. That’s my “what response”. How can you do that? There are few options here: you can either hide in the radar shadow of another “heavy” (The SIA68 theory) or we swap planes somehow. Either way – time is critical. How and why the hijacking developed – I cannot speculate. The information is too much, too noisy, too contradicting. What was the final outcome I leave to guys like you. Good luck!

    So whodidit? – we know which state entities got hurt: Malaysia and China. Occam’s razor points at an object or a person that was prevented from getting to Beijing. Who can pull such a massive heist without getting (eventually) exposed? If it’s a state actor – I’d suspect either USA or the Russians. If we accept the info about closing of Diego Garcia as legit, then it seems probable that US intelligence at least knows what actually happened. We probably never will, or info will slowly bleed over the years, in a decaying cover-up similar to TWA800.

  4. So the fact that he mapped virtually the same route into the southern Indian Ocean on his flight simulator is just a coincidence? Haven’t seen the new show produced by Sky News Australian and wonder if it contains any new facts to bolster the mass murder/suicide theory…? #occamsrazor

  5. @L, It wasn’t ‘virtually the same route,’ it only superficially resembled the suspected flight to the south. And he went on to use the flight simulator for a bunch of other flights that had nothing to do with a 777 flight to the southern Indian Ocean.

  6. @L, Well, they did look in the area where the Inmarsat data suggested they should look–and far, far, beyond–and the plane wasn’t there. So this experiment has already been run.

  7. @Kerguelen Avon

    “Over this critical delay of the emergency response no hijacker has control.”

    Are you sure about this? Maybe the misinformation, which includes the delayed response, was part of the overall operation.

    But yes technically the person flying 9M-MRO after the IGARI waypoint does not have control over this delay.

  8. I miss Jeff Wise making arguments about MH370 related topics!

    Hopefully, your book is not going to be the closing chapter.


  9. Jeff,my wife and I just finished your book. Really interesting read! but wondering about reports claiming that debris has been recovered thatis marked with numbers that some day prove conclusively that they came from MS370. Is that true from your perspective? If so, wouldn’t that support the crash theory and not the hijscking theory? we’re tealllybcurious.

  10. @Glenn, Yes, numerical codes inside the flaperon indicate that it came from MH370. To me this indicates that if it was planted (as several inconsistencies suggest) then it was planted by whoever took the plane.

  11. The numerical codes inside the flaperon ONLY indicate that it is THE FLAPERON ORIGINALLY FITTED TO 9M-MRO ON THE PRODUCTION LINE. It DOES NOT PROVE that it was on 9M-MRO when it pushed back from Gate C-1. Remember, there was a ground accident in China in 2012, that substantially damaged the right wing, and it had to be repaired.

    Incidentally, why were there no numbers recovered from the inside of the Pemba flap ?

  12. David
    Update #3.

    Read the caption.

    Figure 2: Exemplar part number and date stamp.
    Note: “Exemplar”
    Dictionary: exemplar – noun – a person or thing serving as a typical example or appropriate model.

    The details in the photo ARE NOT THOSE OF THE PEMBA FLAP.
    Show me the REAL numbers on the Pemba Flap.

    Re the ATSB “Conclusions”
    “It was confirmed that Part No. 5 was the inboard section of a Boeing 777 right, outboard flap, originating from the Malaysia Airlines aircraft registered 9M-MRO.”


  13. @Ventue45. “On arrival at the ATSB, several part numbers were immediately located on the debris that confirmed the preliminary identification.”
    What was in the photograph was an example.

  14. @David.

    The French, to their credit, did provide the numbers found inside the flaperon, and they also published both the production records, and even the shipping documents to Boeing, showing that it was destined for fitting to B777 line #404, which was Boeing s/n 28420, which became 9M-MRO.

    If the ATSB are so certain that the Pemba flap is from 9M-MRO, they must have the same production and shipping documentation. Why did they refuse to provide the ACTUAL numbers AND the ACTUAL corroborating documentation ?

    An BLAND ASSERTION: – “On arrival at the ATSB, several part numbers were immediately located on the debris that confirmed the preliminary identification.” – WITHOUT PROOF to back it up – is not worth the paper it is printed on.

  15. @Ventus45. The “proof” was in the statement that the Italian manufacturers, “recovered build records for the numbers located on the part and confirmed that all of the numbers related to”…… the flap shipped for fitment to this aircraft during at its manufacture.

    Any misrepresentation by the ATSB surely would entail high risk, access to the manufacturer’s build records and excellent forgery skills, unless the manufacturer were involved also. What would be the purpose of such a deceit conspiracy? The flaperon’s identity had been established and with that the aircraft it was from and the region where that had broken up.

    As I remember it earlier you thought the original flap might have been replaced during a right wing repair of the aircraft. If so, why would the ATSB (and probably the flap manufacturer) not disclose the numbers as found?

    I think I will leave this there.

  16. @David

    You might be convinced, and be willing to “leave it there”, as you put it, but having the ATSB simply saying that the components “were from” the aircraft, does not prove “when” they came “from” the aircraft. The official statements are deliberately vague, and non specific. Classic ATSB obfuscation.

    It is a fact that the taxi accident did occur, and that substantial and significant repairs were done. What we don’t know, is the true extent of the damage, and the true extent of the repairs.

    The other aircraft (hit by 9M-MRO – which was passing on a taxi way) was stationary at a gate, and was an A340. 9M-MRO hit it’s tail.

    Both the NTSB and the BEA were accredited to the Chinese investigation.

    I have tried, and failed, to find the original Chinese report, or any reference to the event on both the NTSB and BEA websites, nor on any Malaysian official website. Perhaps you might have better luck in tracking something down ?

    But it begs the question, why are no details of that fairly major incident readily available, from any source ?

    The French judiciary have kept the flaperon as “evidence”. They must have a reason. Perhaps, in fact, it is almost certain, that the French judiciary do have the information the BEA has on that taxi accident.

  17. Managed to view the article, but found the source of the info to be Bellingcat, who are not reliable. Good evidence that the organisation was set up and funded by UK 77th Brigade, at Hermitage, Berks at the behest of MI5/6 and Bellingcat’s role would appear to be pushing UK government propaganda.

  18. Another issue is the high mutation rate of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is it’s high mutation rate. A study published 22-Apr-2020 illustrated the size of the problem…

    ‘Emerging SARS-CoV-2 mutation hot spots include a novel RNA-dependent-RNA polymerase variant.’

    SARS-CoV-2 is a RNA coronavirus responsible for the pandemic of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (COVID-19). RNA viruses are characterized by a high mutation rate, up to a million times higher than that of their hosts. Virus mutagenic capability depends upon several factors, including the fidelity of viral enzymes that replicate nucleic acids, as SARS-CoV-2 RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp). Mutation rate drives viral evolution and genome variability, thereby enabling viruses to escape host immunity and to develop drug resistance.

    We analyzed 220 genomic sequences from the GISAID database derived from patients infected by SARS-CoV-2 worldwide from December 2019 to mid-March 2020. SARS-CoV-2 reference genome was obtained from the GenBank database. Genomes alignment was performed using Clustal Omega. Mann–Whitney and Fisher-Exact tests were used to assess statistical significance.

    We characterized 8 novel recurrent mutations of SARS-CoV-2, located at positions 1397, 2891, 14408, 17746, 17857, 18060, 23403 and 28881. Mutations in 2891, 3036, 14408, 23403 and 28881 positions are predominantly observed in Europe, whereas those located at positions 17746, 17857 and 18060 are exclusively present in North America. We noticed for the first time a silent mutation in RdRp gene in England (UK) on February 9th, 2020 while a different mutation in RdRp changing its amino acid composition emerged on February 20th, 2020 in Italy (Lombardy). Viruses with RdRp mutation have a median of 3 point mutations [range: 2–5], otherwise they have a median of 1 mutation [range: 0–3] (p value < 0.001).

    URL –

    Very difficult to hit a moving target. I'm not holding my breath that an effective vax will be developed soon or even in normal timescales.

  19. @SteveBarratt, Of course by now, more than six years later, there really isn’t a wrong side to Australia–MH370 debris could wind up along any ocean coast in the world. Still, would be extremely interesting if it did turn out to be from MH370.

  20. Hello, Jeff! This afternoon, I sat down to watch the NOVA episode “Why Planes Vanish” for about the twentieth time, and your comments caught my attention (finally). I did a little research and found your articles as well as your website. I am intrigued by your Russian hacker theory, although at first, I was put off by it; however, upon further reflection, I surmised that your conclusions about what happened to MH370 are as valid as any others still out there. As someone who is OBSESSED with this case, I appreciate your dedication to this mystery and your search for the truth. I agree with you that a simple answer to what happened doesn’t exist, but I sincerely hope that we will all know something of the truth in due course. I don’t believe in closure, but I do believe in the redeeming value of the truth, no matter how complex or inconvenient it may be. Keep up the good work!

  21. @Vanessa, Thanks for your kind words. It’s nice to know that there are others equally obsessed! If you’re interested in my theory I would highly recommend reading “The Taking of MH370,” as it lays out the case in concise detail and addresses the evidence both pro and con.

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