Nine years ago, MH370 took off into a clear, moonlit night and flew into the unknown. Somewhere over the South China Sea, 40 minutes into the red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, it disappeared from radar screens. None of the 239 passengers and crew were ever seen again. The conventional thinking is that the pilot had decided to commit mass murder-suicide by crashing into a remote corner of the southern Indian Ocean. But significant aspects of the case remained unexplained, including the plane’s ultimate resting place, and search officials have long since given up trying to determine what happened. Officially, MH370 is a cold case.
The urgency of solving the mystery remains, though. It’s disturbing enough that a state-of-the-art airliner can disappear so completely off the face of the earth; it’s even more troubling that the authorities, armed with hundreds of millions of dollars to conduct a search and self-proclaimed near certainty about where it must have gone, could fail to locate the 200-foot-long aircraft.
I’ve been following the case obsessively from the beginning, appearing on CNN to talk about it and writing about it in this magazine. I dove deep into the evidence for a 2019 book, and then spent several years working with the producers of a three-part Netflix documentary series, which debuts this week. My hope is that, while the passage of time has lessened the public’s interest in the case, it has also dispelled the fog of wild claims, giving us space to consider the evidence with greater clarity. Far from being a dead end, MH370 still offers multiple leads worth investigating. It’s important that we follow them.
A strange U-turn
A distinctive aspect of the flight is that it got progressively weirder as it went along. Everything was normal when it took off from Kuala Lumpur. Then 40 minutes later, the plane went electronically dark and vanished from Air Traffic Control screens. Still visible on military radar, it pulled a hard U-turn and flew west toward India. Then three minutes after leaving radar coverage, its satellite communications system, or satcom, turned back on. For the next six hours, the satcom periodically emitted signals that would later offer investigators vague hints of the plane’s trajectory.
It took weeks before the Australian government announced to the public that its scientists had solved the mathematical riddle posed by those transmissions and had calculated the plane’s final resting place in the southern ocean. The implication was that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmen Shah, must have taken the aircraft. Yet after spending years searching the area, and far beyond, they found no trace of the fuselage on the seabed, a turn of events they labeled in their final report as “almost inconceivable.”
So where is the plane?
To many people, the failure of the search seemed unsurprising. The ocean is a big place, after all. But the searchers’ failure was actually baffling. The data they were working from was precise and the mathematics were well understood. For the plane to have gone into the Southern Ocean, and yet wound up somewhere outside the search zone, would require a sequence of events ranging from vanishingly unlikely to flat-out impossible.
Wrestling with how this might have happened quickly gets you into weird territory. Most people, and the search authorities themselves, prefer simple, normal-seeming explanations. And if you consider only the broad outlines of the case, there are simple, normal theories that seem compelling. But once you start examining the evidence in higher detail, the simple theories start to develop holes.
The weirdest part of a weird mystery
To me, the great underappreciated red flag of the case is the fact that the satcom was turned back on. I have yet to meet a 777 pilot who, before MH370, had even heard of the critical piece of equipment, a box called the Satellite Data Unit, or SDU. It turns out that the procedure for turning the SDU off and back on is not included on any of the pilots’ emergency checklists, and instead requires a sophisticated knowledge of the plane’s electrical system. Of all the many theories floated about MH370, none includes a plausible explanation for why anyone would want to mess with it. Yet this inexplicable eventuality gave rise to the signals that the whole seabed search rested on.
What we can say now is that whatever happened to MH370, it must have been deeply strange. As the years have gone by, even more mind-bending clues have turned up, like the data from the captain’s home flight simulator (first described in this article) which ambiguously suggests he may have practiced a flight into the southern ocean. All the same, though, the range of possibilities is not infinite. Investigators possess numerical data generated by known physical processes. This data did not come out of thin air. Theories that match it might be correct; theories that don’t must not be.
As I struggled to make sense of the case’s anomalies in the early months after the disappearance, I realized that some unusual details of the plane’s electrical configuration might point the way to a solution. As I explained in a New York Magazine feature eight years ago, if hijackers tampered with the SDU to create a false electronic trail for investigators, then the implication would be that the plane didn’t go south after all, but rather north to Kazakhstan. The only possible perpetrator of such an operation would be Russia, which was in the process of seizing Crimea from Ukraine at the time and benefited from having the world’s attention redirected. I admitted then that my theory is something of a wild ride, but it has yet to be disproven. The default hypothesis is not the only option.
What we can still do
The good news is that there are positive steps that we the public can take to help move this case closer to a resolution. For starters, we can urge the Australian government to reopen the investigation and make a serious, transparent reckoning of where its assumptions went wrong. Second, we can pressure the Malaysian government to finally release all the evidence in its possession, including the full set of military radar returns showing the plane’s last known track.
It’s clear that the authorities have been embarrassed by their failures so far. The easiest thing for them to do would be to leave it all in the past. But too much is at stake — both for the family members of the disappeared and for the flying public, who have a right to know that their aircraft will not spontaneously vanish. As I hope the Netflix documentary makes clear, there’s an uncomfortable hole in our seamless network of global transportation. We need to do every conceivable thing in our power to figure out what happened.
MH370 is not a legend. It is real, and science can find it.
This article ran in New York magazine on March 8, 2023.
135 thoughts on “New York: MH370 Is a Cold Case. But It Can Still Be Solved.”
Hi Jeff, thanks for publishing this and I just finished watching the Netflix miniseries. After hearing your hypothesis as presented in the show, I have two questions:
– if hijackers were able to take over the electronics bay and avionics, how would they also be able to commandeer the plane’s flight controls? I thought that on airplanes such as the B777*, control inputs by the pilots override the autopilot and are directly transmitted by hydraulics to the control surfaces or engines. Or are you suggesting the other alleged hijacker(s) either took over the cockpit or spoofed the pilots into flying off course through faked instrument readings?
– with that question about Means/Opportunity out of the way, my next question is about Motive. Is a high-risk operation like the scenario you’ve sketched out really worth the political risks in order to “distract” the global news cycle? I don’t pretend to know what goes on in the minds of Vladimir Putin or the FSB or GRU, and the events of the past year have certainly shown that they can be quite reckless, but I don’t see how targeting a flight going to Beijing carrying multiple Chinese nationals would be worth the risks to Russia’s relationship with China, one of their few allies in the world. I know this gets into questions of Kremlinology and geopolitics rather than your expertise in aviation, but I had to ask.
While the Netflix show quoted someone calling your hypothesis “like a Tom Clancy novel”, this case more reminds me of a different novelist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote: “when you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The problem is that I don’t know that the hijack theory is possible, whereas the pilot murder-suicide explanation is, however horrific and improbable it feels to us all.
Thanks for your time, I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.
* at least, that’s my non-expert understanding of Boeing airplanes? Now if this had happened to an Airbus…
Do you find it highly irregular that in 2022 Boeing is reporting that the 777 has safety issues. The FAA said Boeing is “currently developing a modification that will address the unsafe condition”. What if no plan got shot down and instead the plane had issues that only now is being reported about. Maybe the two Malaysian planes were the first mishaps.
What about the debris that was found in the South China Sea – one piece had an ID number that matched that of Flt 370?
Still not much info about the debris found in the South China Sea. Was it connected to 370 or planted by ???
I am a professor of Engineering and a keen follower of modern history and politics. It was a good documentary and Jeff Wise comes across as his name suggests…wise, unlike most of the others who seemed a little too emotional, and not convincingly rational. The debris is not validated and almost all of it links to one guy with Russian links. The rogue pilot is plausible, but unconvincing. No valid evidence for rogue tendencies. The 3 Russian passengers and the hijack seems more plausible than the rogue pilot. One in the instrument bay rigging the communications systems, two to take over the cockpit and fly to Kazakhstan. The motive is also clear. Get Russian Crimean shenanigans off the front page. Russians also shot down a MAS plane during Crimea, this is a fact. The Malaysian military Radar is to me the most solid evidence we have. It gets us to a crossroads in the Indian Ocean where it the plane could have gone north or south. The Inmasat evidence is just too tenous to prove north or south, and south was never verified by a search, or by debris. Conclusion. Russian Hijack and Kazakhstan fits the hardest evidence and the question of motive the best.
To the person saying the B777 is “commanded directly by hydraulics,” it was one of the first fly-by-wire planes where the controls are purely electronic.
Good point about the Russians risking Chinese relations.
Andrew Jahn, Thanks for this, well put. The fact that the plane flew to end of the Malacca Strait before its supposed turn to the south is one of things which seems sort of randomly curious and inexplicable from the pilot-suicide perspective but crucial in a spoof scenario. Also, I’d add another detail that didn’t make it into the documentary: at the time of the last primary radar turn, the plane was either turning or about to turn north. Why would it turn north, only to turn south again?
Ann V, There was no debris found in the South China Sea. That’s one of the reasons the claims of Tomnod participants were not given much credence.
Alex R, One of the things that struck me about MH370 early on was that it had a whole string of characteristics that together created a vulnerability — that is, made it conceivable that a hacking attack took place, whether it actually did or not. Because it was a Boeing plane rather than an Airbus, for example, it had an electronics bay hatch that was accessible to the passengers. And as a late-model, fly-by-wire aircraft (rather than an earlier, hydraulically-controlled plane like a 747) it was controlled from the electronics bay.
As for the danger Russia would face in angering China, I agree that this would be a reason for Russis not to take MH370. But I think it’s important to understand that I’m not arguing that Russia definitely took the plane, just that the possibility exists that they did. Once we establish what exactly did happen we can then assess motives and such.
Tinky Winky, A lot of people asked this question so I addressed it in the video I posted last night.
I read your book and many facts to back your theory are in the book, not given time in the documentary. The facts your theory is derived from makes sense, in the absence of anything else. I also can imagine the pilot suicide theory but as noted in the documentary it would take a lot of evil for a person to just keep flying for 6 hours no less with 230+ dead people to commit mass murder and suicide. That’s along time and the pilot doesn’t strike me as that sick or crazy. I think the facts you laid out in your book, the diving experience, the fact that one was close to Machitski who is close to Chemesov, is a very important thing I wish there were more details on in your book and was not covered in the documentary. I think there is so much more here to be discovered as in why, for what purpose. Both are also close to China and as we see know is helping Russia in its was against Ukraine.
Margrethe, Thanks. As you can see the TV show only had time for a very brief summation of a detailed theory. Maybe one day I’ll get to dive into this material in greater depth…
Greetings jeff, good job, I just finished watching the documentary and honestly I was captivated, each of the theories has its point of view, I am reading each of your posts and although I don’t speak English, and I don’t have much experience, I try to understand the investigation. The plane must appear, for the future of the passengers, to put an end to the uncertainty of the relatives and to give eternal rest to those souls that will no longer return.
Cinthya, Thank you for your comment, I’m so glad you liked the show.
Hi Jeff. Thanks for your continued excellent reporting. I wanted to make a comment I haven’t elsewhere.
I lived in Shanghai from 2008-15. I often flew in/out of Beijing, Hong Kong, KL, Bangkok, Manila and Singapore. Chinese are very active and unlike western flights. there was never a time on red eyes when people went quietly to sleep. For the first 30 minutes stewardesses are in the aisle selling duty free, passengers are talking loudly and the cabin is brightly lit. Chinese are constantly on their cell phones right up to take off. The fact that there is virtually no passenger phone traffic prior to take off leads me to believe that there was a jamming device on board the plane, which points directly to the Russians. The device obviously was at range limit into the cockpit which is why the co-pilot pinged. Many Chinese leave their phones on during the flight so there should have been many pings when they cut back over Malaysia.
This is what directly points to the Russians because even if the pilot is going to hijack the plane I doubt he can jam the cell phones.
Trip, That’s an interesting idea! Far-fetched but not much more so than my own. Some interesting ideas here tonight on cell phones…
Low-powered jammers block calls in a range of about 30 feet (9 m). Higher-powered units create a cell-free zone as large as a football field. Units used by law enforcement can shut down service up to 1 mile (1.6 km) from the device. Some cell-phone jammers are made to look like actual phones.
Trip, I find this quite an interesting possibility.
I understand that the below is not what some investigative journalists will want to consider, but, I think we are now scientifically at a point where the idea can no longer be ignored. And I can’t help but think about it when I learn about mysteries such as MH370.
I’m talking about the idea that two different observers can experience different realities. Physicists have now shown us that realities can be irreconcilable for different observers. That is, truly irreconcilable, and not just in theory, but, in fact.
This was demonstrated by three physicists who shared the 2022 Nobel prize in physics for showing that the universe is not locally real, as explained by Scientific American:
“One of the more unsettling discoveries in the past half a century is that the universe is not locally real. In this context, “real” means that objects have definite properties independent of observation—an apple can be red even when no one is looking. “Local” means that objects can be influenced only by their surroundings and that any influence cannot travel faster than light. Investigations at the frontiers of quantum physics have found that these things cannot both be true. Instead the evidence shows that objects are not influenced solely by their surroundings, and they may also lack definite properties prior to measurement.”
Also see: https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/03/12/136684/a-quantum-experiment-suggests-theres-no-such-thing-as-objective-reality/
Jordan, I have been struck by how quantum-mechanical MH370 is in the sense of a binary uncertainty — there’s a kind of superposition right now between the plane going north and the plane going south.
According to Wikipedia, there were 1 Russian, 2 Ukrainian and 3 Americans:)
Maybe you have to rethink your theory?
And btw… Kazakhstan is not Russia:)
Just A., Part of Kazakhstan actually is Russia — at least, administered by it. And there’s a big remote airstrip there.
It’s great that you are looking at it from a quantum perspective.
One of the events that helped me understand this perspective experientially was the 2019 Lincoln Memorial confrontation. I had visual effects experience and downloaded every video of the event I could find. Spent hundreds of hours analyzing footage in Adobe After Effects. And I concluded that the whole thing was very likely staged. I tried to let people know, but no-one at news outlets I contacted seemed to care. I couldn’t understand how one person could know a truth about a public event that millions of others didn’t know.
Aloha Jeff, I am writing to you from Hawaiian Islands. Something that kinda made me scratch my head is why didn’t they try to track or even talk more about the black box that was expired a year before the travel? Isnt that illegal to fly with an expired black box? Even if it did crash on land or water, wouldn’t the box still give some sort of signal of some sort? Also, I think it would have been very respectful if they could have talked more about the passengers, and also put a list of passengers names towards the end.
Another thing, Did they not think about finding a blue print of the plane to see if the debris that were found did actually match MH370?
Nova, Aloha to you as well! They did try to find the black box by listening for the acoustic signals that the boxes should generate when submerged, but those efforts were unsuccessful. As for the debris, they were able to definitively connect the first piece found, the flaperon, to MH370 using internal serial numbers (despite what Florence de Changy claimed.)
Hi, I’m from Singapore. Just thinking aloud if the 2 crashes were prelude to the recent Russia- Ukraine war. Maybe make it easier to conquer Ukraine and fellow neighbours as well as make a point to the USA. Mh370 n mh17 were 2 unfortunate weapons but it’s planned. Multi year plan, objectives met for location takeover purposes n political responses to outside world about the sanctions.
EBI, If MH370 was hijacked I definitely think it’s in the context of the Ukraine War and more broadly Russia’s multi-pronged efforts to destabilized the democratic West.
On board that plane were engineers who created “cloaking” technology.
The value of that knowledge is off the charts. It is a geo-politicsl, industrial espionage incident at the highest level…the Russians wanted it and did not want the Chinese to have it.
Dave, If what you say is true — and I think you’re affirming it with more confidence than I think is merited — then all that gives you is a motive. One could postulate all kinds of motives. But it doesn’t do anything to explain the facts at hand. To put it in murder mystery terms, everyone might have their reasons for killing Colonel Mustard, but only one of them did it.
Follow the Money
1MDB, Malaysia Development Berhad, was formed as a development fund for Malaysia. Nations and wealthy individuals would invest money in the fund expecting large returns. It also helped launder money where dirty money goes in and clean money comes out.
MH370 has never had a motive for the southern route other than pilot suicide. If the plane went north MH370 could have been a warning given to those who controlled 1MDB funds. Russians have been identified as being involved in the 1MDB scandal (see article below). The Russians were using 1MDB to launder money and looking to have their money returned. When they found out much of it had been embezzled they went to stronger measures to try to recover it. The complete investigative report was published in the Edge on March 6, 2014 (below). One interesting coincidence is that exactly 2 years before MH370 on March 8, 2012, 1MDB bought Tanjong Energy Holdings (see below) for RM8.5 billion from tycoon Ananda Krishnan.
The hijacked plane could have circled near Malaysia while negotiations were attempted with the government. When those were unsuccessful the plane was flown on to Kazakhstan where it landed in one piece. The hijackers realized that they needed another Malaysian 777 to help create ocean debris, so they shot down MH17. None of the ocean debris found has been conclusively tied to MH370 and the one identifier on the flapaeron is conveniently missing. The ocean debris has unexplained anomalies.
I believe that it was reported that there was little or no cell phone communication once people had boarded the plane. Cell phone jamming devices could appear as a regular cell phone and cover an area the size of a football field. The only connection in the Malaysian peninsula overflight was the co-pilot’s phone as his phone might have been partially shielded from the jamming device in the cockpit. The voice appeared to be intoxicated which could have been caused by oxygen deprivation. There should have been multiple pings from the cell phones on the plane.
As I said on the prior post, Chinese are notorious for their disregard of safety instructions. I lived in Shanghai from 2008-15 and I have flown in/out of Beijing, Hong Kong, KL, Bangkok, Manila and Singapore. Chinese typically disregard instructions to turn off cell phones. I’ve seen passengers open overhead bins to retrieve luggage while the plane is on final approach. And seatbelt warnings are typically ignored.
So, in conclusion, I agree with Jeff Wise on the northern route and would add money laundering through 1MDB as a possible motive. Note the dates in the articles below.
Articles referenced in my prior post
Malaysiakini – https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/594222
Offshore funds linked to 1MDB scandal also involved in Indian, Russian frauds.
The Edge, #Highlight* A response to 1MDB
#Highlight* A response to 1MDB
Last Updated: 8:00am, Mar 06, 2014 AFTER The Edge Malaysia’s Cover Story of Feb 17
I just saw the documentary on netflix. I agree with you and others that nothing can disappear with all the observation tools around us. Especially in the south east chinese sea.
What I missed in this whole picture : was the shooting down of the MH17 of Malyasian air a coincident?
Imagine : you need debris of a B777 from, if possible, the same airliner. May be MH17 is of the same age / serie of the MH370?
For sure it had the same paint. It can declare the non-matching numbers on the airelon.
Fact is that the russians had shout down the MH17, but is there a scenario that they were acting on false intelligence?
The MH17 went down on ‘friendly’ ground and result in big benifits for a lot of parties involved.
Most of the debris is in the Netherlands.
Is an airelon and other found parts missing from the debris of MH17?
May be it has been investigate long time ago.
Wish you a lot of succes
I recently became interested in the disappearance of MH370 and have found it so baffling, as you have said before planes just don’t disappear. I watched the series on Netflix and found it really interesting. I just read your MH370 A Decade Later article and i’ve got to say it was very interesting. I do have a couple questions i was hoping you could answer for me.
(i don’t know a lot about planes so if these questions seem to have an obvious answer i apologize haha)
Firstly you mention the SDU. Going with your theory about the Russian’s that could have been on MH370 could someone tamper with the SDU while in the electronics bay? How long was the SDU on? and is the last location of the SDU traceable?
Secondly If the Australian government reopened the case would Malaysia have to give up the evidence since Australia would be handling the case?
Since i’ve heard of this case i’ve always felt something was off about it. It just doesn’t make any sense, planes (especially the size of a Boeing 777) don’t just go vanish into thin air.
I admire your dedication to the case and I hope to hear from you soon!
Dear Jeff, take a look at the globe picture with flight path shown on top of this article. The return flight path from IGARI has exactly the same course deviations it would have had if the MH370 had continued to Beijing. The difference is the magnetic headings but turningpoints and turning directions right and left is similar to the original flight plan towards Beijing. Move IGARI as the start point back to KL and turn the whole path north. Then is show the original flight path towards Hong Kong and Beijing.
How come ?