As the governments involved in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 warn that the operation in the southern Indian Ocean will be suspended soon if no evidence is found, and the families of those on board call for more to be done, not less, journalists are again jumping on the “rogue pilot” theory.
In an article in New York magazine, headlined “Exclusive: MH370 Pilot Flew a Suicide Route on His Home Simulator Closely Matching Final Flight”, aviation pundit Jeff Wise leads the pack in concluding that Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah most likely downed the plane deliberately.
Wise bases his conclusion on a reported discovery by the FBI that Zaharie conducted a simulated flight to the southern Indian Ocean less than a month before MH370 vanished.
However, Zaharie’s relatives say his personal, home-built flight simulator, from which investigators obtained data, hadn’t been working for about a year prior to the disappearance of MH370.
Wise admits that the data reportedly recovered from Zaharie’s flight simulator is by no means conclusive.
‘The differences between the simulated and actual flights are significant, most notably in the final direction in which they were heading. It’s possible that their overall similarities are coincidental – that Zaharie didn’t intend his simulator flight as a practice run, but had merely decided to fly someplace unusual.”
This, however, has not prevented journalists, particularly in Australia and Britain, running excitedly with the “suicide route” story.
MH370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board. It was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
There is no proof that the Boeing 777 did end up in the southern Indian Ocean. The search area that is still being scoured by an Australia-led team was chosen on the basis of calculations by staff of the British company Inmarsat, who analysed satellite pings – or handshakes – from MH370.
There are many who have cast doubt on Inmarsat’s conclusions and do not believe that flight MH370 went down in the southern Indian Ocean.
The “rogue pilot” idea is nothing new. Ever since MH370 disappeared, theorists have pointed the finger at Captain Zaharie.
In a book published in 2014, New Zealand journalist Geoff Taylor and pilot Ewan Wilson went as far as saying Zaharie was suicidal and performed a controlled ditching in the sea. There is not a shred of evidence to back up their theory and the book, in which the authors dream up a very detailed on-board scenario, outraged Zaharie’s friends and family.
Friends and relatives of Zaharie say they do not believe he could have hijacked the plane, and there is no actual evidence that either of the pilots are responsible for the disappearance of flight MH370.
The first interim report into MH370’s disappearance, released on March 8, 2015, states that CCTV recordings showed no significant changes in the behavioural pattern of either of MH370’s two pilots before the plane took off.
The gait, posture, facial expressions, and mannerism were Captain Zaharie’s normal characteristics, the report says. “There were no significant changes in his life style, interpersonal conflict or family stresses.”
The 584-page report, which was released to comply with International Civil Aviation Organisation requirements, revealed that the battery on the beacon of MH370’s flight data recorder expired more than a year before the plane vanished on March 8 last year.
The document contains extremely detailed technical information, but gives no clue as to what might have happened to the aircraft.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Zaharie’s sister, Sakinab Shah, said she had lunch with her brother two weeks before MH370 disappeared.
She told the BBC’s transport correspondent, Richard Westcott: “We went to a local restaurant. He was his normal self, making jokes, which is why it’s just incredible with all the accusations coming his way. I find it hard to accept.”
She added: “We were brought up in a very decent family. A simple village boy, from poor beginnings and he became a commercial pilot. It was a dream come true. He stayed with Malaysia Airlines for 30 years, recorded over 18,000 hours of flying time. No bad record, nothing untoward. He was just a few years from retirement. Do you think he would want to throw this all away?”
About US$135 million has been spent on an underwater search spanning 120,000 square kilometres.
The Malaysian, Australian, and Chinese transport ministers issued a joint statement last Friday (July 22) saying they had agreed that, should the aircraft not be located in the current search area, and in the absence of credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the plane, the search would be suspended after the remaining area had been scoured.
“With less than 10,000 square kilometres of the high priority search area remaining to be searched, ministers acknowledged that, despite the best efforts of all involved, the likelihood of finding the aircraft is fading.”
The ministers emphasised that the search was being suspended, not terminated. “The aspiration to locate MH370 has not been abandoned. Should credible new information emerge which can be used to identify the specific location of the aircraft, consideration will be given in determining next steps,” they said.
The transport ministers said they acknowledged the significance of the discovery of aircraft debris that is believed to be from MH370, but said that, to date, none of it had provided information that positively identified the precise location of the aircraft.
Investigators in Australia are examining a sixth piece of debris, which was found by locals on Pemba Island, off the coast of Tanzania, on June 23.
On July 19, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) and Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation confirmed that a large piece of debris, which investigators say is likely to be a wing flap, had arrived in Canberra for examination.
The Australian authorities said in May that two pieces of aircraft debris – one discovered in South Africa and one found in Mauritius – were “almost certainly” from flight MH370.
This followed an announcement in March by the transport ministers of Malaysia and Australia, who said two pieces of debris found in Mozambique were also “almost certainly” from the missing plane.
American amateur investigator Blaine Alan Gibson with the debris he found in Mozambique in February.
Last September, the authorities in France announced that an aircraft flaperon found on the island of Reunion in July last year was from MH370.
In June, Blaine Alan Gibson found other debris on the island of Nosy Boraha in northeastern Madagascar. He says the Malaysian investigators have twice cancelled plans to come and retrieve the debris and that his offer to take it to Malaysia himself was declined. Relatives of those on board MH370 say important possible new evidence is being ignored.
Blaine Gibson with some of the debris he discovered in Madagascar.
One piece contains the honeycomb material found in other debris believed to be from MH370. Another resembles a part of a seat and includes a piece of equipment carrying the words “coat hook”. (Photos by Blaine Gibson.)
Families say search must continue
The MH370 family support group, Voice370, has expressed concern that “credible new information” has not been defined and no clarification or explanation has been given about what is being done to search for or attain such evidence. “What is credible new information? How high has the bar been set?”
The families’ request for the transport ministers and members of the investigation team to meet with the next of kin was denied.
The group says a search should now be conducted off the coast of Africa.
Voice370 urges Malaysia, Australia, and China to review all analysis based on Inmarsat data, all simulations, and all other sources of data in light of the debris discoveries, and recalibrate the search area.
It also wants the governments to make public all of Inmarsat’s raw data about MH370, all relevant radar data, and all analysis, including detailed assumptions, along with all other facts that have informed the search so far.
The group also urges the French authorities to make public the detailed forensic and biological examination of the flaperon and “share its report with findings without any further delay or dilatory moves”.
They added: “We would like Malaysia to also specifically dispel any doubts as to the basis of identification of the flaperon in light of doubts that have been raised by leaked excerpts of the French investigation … that cast doubts on the flaperon’s origins, the path it may have taken, the duration it may have been on (or in) the seas, etc.”
Voice370 says it acknowledges that it may be impossible to deploy ground search parties across Mauritius and Madagascar and along the southeastern coast of Africa, but says Malaysia could do more to prevent the permanent loss of debris and evidence.
“Concerted and widespread information could be disseminated to the local population, especially fishermen; to people living in these coastal areas, and to beachgoers, to be on the lookout for potential debris.
“Information on how to identify potential parts can be made available in printed leaflets, through social media, and possibly through a webpage. Web-based reporting and uploading of photos can be instituted. Local authorities can be enlisted to collect and hold these pieces. Local community support and social organisations can be enlisted to organise search activities. All these do not need very much funding. It merely needs organisational skills.”
The families praise the “heroic efforts” of the crews who have braved the seas in the search for MH370, and the support structure on shore. “They have our appreciation and gratitude.” However, the lives of the families of those on board MH370 had remained in limbo for more than 800 days.
Map courtesy of the BBC.
Since MH370 disappeared there have been innumerable theories about its fate that range from the perfectly plausible to the wildly bizarre. There have been accusations of ineptitude on the part of the Malaysian government, and allegations of a cover-up.
Malaysia’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has publicly alleged that the fate of MH370 has been concealed.
Another person who alleges a cover-up is French journalist Florence de Changy, whose book “Le vol MH370 n’a pas disparu” (Flight MH370 did not disappear), came out in March this year.
De Changy does not believe the official version of events. She says it is absurd; that it is impossible in this hi-tech day and age for a Boeing 777 with 239 people on board to disappear. She is convinced that there are those who know what happened to the plane, and why.
The journalist cites experts who have doubts about the authorities’ stated conviction that the flaperon discovered on Reunion Island is from MH370.
There are those who still allege that the plane was shot down by the United States military when it was en route to Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean that is owned by the British and is home to a major US military base.
This is a theory that has been put forward by the former director of the French airline Proteus, Marc Dugain. He has suggested that US military personnel may have shot down MH370 over the Indian Ocean to prevent it being used to attack the Diego Garcia base.
Dugain also speculated that the plane may have been forced to divert from its flight path because of remote hacking or an on-board fire.
He pointed to the testimony of residents of the Maldives who said they saw an airliner travelling towards Diego Garcia on March 8, but whose claims were dismissed.
Relatives gather outside the office of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Article updated on 27/7/2016.