Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 unofficial disappearance theories

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Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on 8 March 2014, after departing from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing with 239 passengers and crew members on board.[1] Malaysia's Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has stated that the aircraft's flight ended somewhere in the Indian Ocean, but no further explanation has been given.[2] Official announcements have been questioned by many critics, and several theories about the disappearance have been proposed.[3] Some of these have been described as conspiracy theories.[4][5] The incident remains under investigation.

Background[edit]

Victims' relatives have questioned the veracity of the Malaysian government's statements about the demise of the aircraft, and organized a protest at the Malaysian embassy in Beijing with the goal of forcing the Malaysian government to reveal any withheld information about Flight 370's whereabouts. According to The Japan Times, however, there is no evidence to support these claims.[6]

Rob Brotherton, a lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, wrote that conspiracy theories emerge immediately after any catastrophe occurs and conclusive information about why they do so remains unavailable.[4] Andrew Leonard wrote that conspiracy theorists were bolstered by the revelation of new satellite data two weeks after the flight disappeared that had been hidden from the public.[7]

Other factors involve the lack of a distress signal from the plane.[8] According to Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times, critics of the Malaysian government's statements also found support in the Joint Agency Coordination Centre's announcement on 29 May 2014 that the plane was not in the search area authorities had been combing since April 2014.[9]

Criticism and response[edit]

Conspiracy-focused internet sites claim that the official statement that the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean makes no sense.[10] They note that a Boeing 777 does not have the structural integrity to survive crashing into the ocean, and that it would be comparable to hitting a concrete wall at terminal velocity. If Flight 370 hit the ocean, they say, it would have been broken into tens of thousands of pieces, many of which float on water (such as the seat cushions) and would be seen washing up on regional shores or easily spotted by search teams.[11]

Harvard professor Cass Sunstein noted that the conflicting information initially released by the Malaysian government explains the interest in alternative theories.[12] Sunstein, who has written on the topic in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on 20 March 2014, argued that conspiracy theories in general often are borne out of horrific and disastrous situations, because such events make people angry, fearful and looking for a "target" .[12]

David Soucie, a former FAA inspector, has said that the theories that have been put forth in this matter are important when there is a lack of knowledge, as the theories and notions help us to consider various possibilities. On 26 March 2014, he stated on CNN:

In an accident investigation, it's a critical part to come up with theories. Especially right now when we don't have anything. We don't have anything tangible. We don't have something to say, hey, yes – because we don't know where that airplane is and we need to find out why. If you take one theory, the airplane would be where we're looking at right now. If you take another theory, where there was nefarious intent, they're trying to avoid radars, the airplane could be somewhere else. If you say it was – whatever it is, you've got to use these theories, weigh them against the facts so you know which one to go to.[13]

Tim Black, deputy editor of Spiked, wrote:  "...it's in this darkness, this near absence of knowledge [about MH370], that speculation has flourished,"[14] and an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, not only stated that "conspiracy theories fill a vacuum when facts are scarce," but also urged governments to search for the plane to debunk these theories and give victims' family members peace of mind.[5]

The common hypothesis, cited also here, that MH370 avoided Indonesian radar is based only on a statement that the plane was not observed by Indonesia.[15] It is easy for radar observers to visually miss an unexpected object.

Hijacking[edit]

The possibility of a simple hijacking has been brought up by various news outlets, including ABC News and the Los Angeles Times.[16][17] Speculation has mounted about the possibility that hijackers took the plane to a remote island, although no group has stepped forward to confirm that it was them;[16] however, unofficial researchers have identified more than 600 possible runways at which the plane was capable of landing.[17] No confirmation has been received from Malaysian officials.[18]

Electronic hijacking[edit]

Electronic hijacking uses systems and programming already factory installed within the B777 flight management system. This is different from hacking or cyber-attack in that it requires access to the B777's security system through access purposefully programmed into the software. Notable proponents of this theory include former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.[19] He said: "Clearly Boeing and certain agencies have the capacity to take over uninterruptible control of commercial airliners of which MH370 B777 is one". In this statement he was referring to off-board hijackers with access to MH370's Flight Management System via the 2003 patented Uninterruptible Autopilot.

"Spoofed" satellite data[edit]

Technology writer Jeff Wise has developed a theory in which the aircraft’s controls were taken over by hijackers from the electronics and equipment bay, accessible through a hatch in the first-class cabin floor. Wise theorizes that the Inmarsat satellite pings were a deliberately laid false trail created by feeding the plane’s satellite communications system false data which in turn caused the system to make false frequency corrections. These would, when later scrutinized, lead investigators to conclude the plane was headed south, when according to Wise’s theory it actually flew north and possibly landed at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.[20]

Terrorist attack[edit]

Shortly after the aircraft disappeared, some news agencies reported that it may have been an act of terrorism,[21] possibly a Jihad attack.[22][23][24][25] Between 9 and 14 March 2014, media mogul Rupert Murdoch tweeted that Flight 370's disappearance "confirms jihadists turning to make trouble for China [sic]." He later suggested the flight might have been hidden in northern Pakistan, "like Bin Laden". These remarks have not been confirmed, and were characterized as conspiracy theories by Shiv Malik in The Guardian.[26] The following month, the Russian newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets endorsed a similar theory, claiming that "unknown terrorists" had hijacked the plane, flown it to Afghanistan, and then held the crew and passengers hostage.[27][28]

North Korea[edit]

A story circulated on Reddit that MH370 had sufficient fuel to be hijacked to North Korea as was done in 1969 with a Korean Air Lines YS-11.[29][30][31]

In late July 2015, in an article about MH370 "conspiracy theories", The Independent briefly mentioned that it had received an email claiming the US had authorized the plane to be shot down because it was allegedly carrying a nuclear warhead to North Korea, though The Independent immediately added the joke "Or it could still be aliens."[32]

Acquisition of Freescale staff[edit]

A variety of social media posts and email chain letters claim that a patent (#8671381) was approved days after the disappearance of the MH370, and the right to the patent was split five ways – 20% to Freescale Semiconductor and 20% each to four employees, all of whom were passengers on the plane.[33] The patent deals with fabrication of integrated circuits on a semiconductor wafer. The urban myth website snopes.com suggests that there is no evidence that the four inventors listed on the patent application were on the aircraft passenger list, nor that they were entitled to a 20% share of the patent, and it says it is unlikely that their share would revert to Freescale on their death as presented in the email.[34]

Retired Delta Air Lines Captain Field McConnell claimed that the aircraft was seized to obtain stealth knowledge of classified patents from 22 Chinese employees of Austin-based Freescale. McConnell also claimed that the company has developed a classified technology that uses paint and electronics to enable traditional aircraft to be overhauled into stealthy jets.[35]

Diego Garcia[edit]

Conspiracy theorists have suggested that MH370 was either captured by the United States and then flown to the United States' military base on the atoll of Diego Garcia[36] in the B.I.O.T. or that the plane landed at the base directly. The latter theory was raised at a White House daily briefing on 18 March, whereupon press secretary Jay Carney responded, "I'll rule that one out."[37] Underpinning the Diego Garcia theory were several elements, one of which was the co-pilot's mobile phone contact and the plane's westward turn, both of which were consistent with a flight path toward the island.

In that vein, it was reported by the Daily Mirror, without giving a concrete source, that the captain had trained in landing on an Indian Ocean island with a short runway, using a flight simulator in his home computer.[38] Several mass media sources reported that the captain had trained using his aviasimulator to land on five runways (at least 1000 meters long) in the Indian Ocean region, namely Diego Garcia and Male International Airport (MLE) and other airstrips in India and Sri Lanka.[39][40]

These allegations were disputed by the FBI, which reported that after analysing the impounded flight simulator, it had found "nothing suspicious whatsoever" and said that the Mirror's reports about the simulator's contents were "unsubstantiated and unsourced".[41][42] Giving a new twist to the MH370 missing story, a former French airline boss has claimed that the Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by the US military near their base on Diego Garcia.[43]

In an article published March 18, 2014, journalists Farah Ahmed and Ahmed Naif of the Maldivian Newspaper Haveeru wrote: "...several residents of Kuda Huvadhoo told Haveeru on Tuesday that they saw a 'low flying jumbo jet' at around 06:15 on March 8. They said that it was a white aircraft, with red stripes across it – which is what the Malaysia Airlines flights typically look like. Eyewitnesses from the Kuda Huvadhoo concurred that the jet was travelling North to South-East, towards the Southern tip of the Maldives – Addu. They also noted the incredibly loud noise that the flight made when it flew over the island. "I've never seen a jet flying so low over our island before. We've seen seaplanes, but I'm sure that this was not one of those. I could even make out the doors on the plane clearly." said an eyewitness. "It's not just me either, several other residents have reported seeing the exact same thing. Some people got out of their houses to see what was causing the tremendous noise too." Mohamed Zaheem, the Island Councilor of Kuda Huvadhoo, said that the residents of the island had spoken about the incident.[44]

In late July 2015, the discovery on a beach in the island of La Réunion, east of Madagascar, of debris from a Boeing 777, suspected (and later confirmed[45][46]) to be from MH370, quickly led to renewed Internet speculation that the plane had been shot down near Diego Garcia (which is 1,475 miles away from La Réunion[32]) out of fears of a terrorist attack,[32] although oceanographers such as Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi, from the University of Western Australia, said that "the arrival of MH370 debris in Réunion would conform to the expected path of ocean currents from the point in its flight path where it was believed to have crashed".[32] Many people, including some of those who believed the plane had landed safely on Diego Garcia (or elsewhere), quickly dismissed the debris as a fake.[32]

Phantom cellphone hypothesis[edit]

Some have speculated that the passengers are still alive but cannot answer their cellphones—sometimes known as the "phantom cellphone theory". This was based on early reports that family members of Flight 370 passengers heard ringing (as opposed to a busy/off signal) while calling the passengers' phones, though this was after the plane disappeared.[47] This, however, has been challenged by Jeff Kagan, a wireless analyst, who in an email to NBC News explained that the network may still produce "ringbacks" as it searches for a connection, even if the cellphone has been destroyed.[48]

Crew suicide/hijacking[edit]

The cockpit had the mandated anti-hijacker fortified doors that could prevent locked-out crew or passengers from interfering with a suicide or hijacking into the Southern Ocean.[49] This can be compared to SilkAir Flight 185 (a suspected pilot suicide incident in 1997), EgyptAir Flight 990 (1999), LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 (2013), as well as the later Germanwings Flight 9525 (2015).[citation needed] Less than three weeks before Flight 370 disappeared—on 17 February 2014—Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702 was hijacked when the co-pilot locked the captain out of the cabin and diverted the aircraft to seek asylum in Switzerland.[50]

Shortly after Flight 370's disappearance, media reports revealed that Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah's wife and three children moved out of his house the day before the disappearance; and a friend claimed that Captain Shah was seeing another woman and Shah's relationship with her was also in trouble.[51][52] Claims of domestic problems have been denied by Shah's family.[53] A fellow pilot and long-time associate of Shah stated the Captain was "terribly upset"[54] that his marriage was falling apart.[52] Police were also investigating reports that Shah received a two-minute phone call prior to the flight's departure from an unidentified woman using a mobile phone number obtained with a false identity.[51] Furthermore, Captain Shah was also a supporter of Malaysian opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim, who was sentenced to jail on 7 March after an earlier acquittal on sodomy charges was overturned in a move viewed as politically motivated.[55]

Investigators noted strange behaviour by Shah from conducting 170 interviews—namely, that the Captain had made no social or professional plans for after 8 March, when Flight 370 disappeared.[56] News reports about the Captain's lack of social plans and flight simulator exercises cite results of the police enquiry into the pilots, which have been shared with some of the investigation team but have not been released publicly. However, news reports on 23 July 2014 stated that the police report considered all those onboard the plane and identified the captain as the prime suspect — if it is proven human intervention was involved.[56] The United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation reconstructed the deleted data from Captain Shah's home flight simulator; a Malaysian government spokesman indicated that "nothing sinister" had been found on it.[57][58] However, The Sunday Times later reported that among deleted flight paths performed on the flight simulator investigators found a flight path into the Southern Ocean where a simulated landing was made on an island with a small runway.[38][53][56][59]

A book Goodnight Malaysian 370 was published in August 2014 by New Zealanders Geoff Taylor and Ewan Wilson blaming a deliberate act of the pilot for the aircraft disappearance but admitted they were not able to "provide any conclusive evidence to support his theory" nor any motive. Ewan Wilson had previously dismissed the fire emergency theory as unlikely.[60][61][62] New Zealand aviation expert Peter Clark stated that to take over the aircraft took "immense knowledge" and that even the co-pilot would not have been sufficiently skilled to disable the communications system and reprogramme a seven-hour flight off course.[54] However Clark admitted the theory would be difficult to prove even if the data recorders were found as the voice recorders would likely be overwritten and as the pilot would be in control of the aircraft then instrument data would report no anomalies.[54] Shah's family vehemently denied the possibility of pilot suicide.[63]

Boeing 777 captain Simon Hardy told BBC News that the plane's route was "probably very accurate flying rather than just a coincidence", and noted that the aircraft's turn toward the north-west over the Malacca Strait allowed a clear view of the captain's home island of Penang:[64]

"Someone was looking at Penang. Someone was taking a long, emotional look at Penang. The captain was from the island of Penang. ... It does a strange hook... in order to look at [Penang] you have to turn left or right, get alongside it and then execute a long turn. If you look at the output from Malaysian 370, there were actually three turns, not one. Someone was looking at Penang."

Fire[edit]

A number of theories suggest that the disappearance may have been the result of a cockpit, cargo compartment, landing gear, or other onboard fire.

In an earlier incident involving a Boeing 777 on 29 July 2011, EgyptAir Flight 667 suffered an intense oxygen fed cockpit fire while still on the ground which destroyed the flight controls and instruments and burnt a hole through the skin of the aircraft. Despite the arrival of firefighters within 3 minutes the fire took 90 minutes to extinguish.[65] Malaysia Air's maintenance records for the 777 aircraft are required to include information on whether the FAA-mandated fix[66] to the wiring near the co-pilot's oxygen hose and replacement of the oxygen hose with one with no metallic components was performed.

Another suggestion is that the pilots had turned back and were attempting an emergency landing at the nearest suitable airport in Northern Malaysia, perhaps Penang International Airport or Langkawi International Airport (Palau Langkawi) a 13,000-foot airstrip with an approach over water with no obstacles. The emergency may have been due to an incident similar to the 11 July 1991 accident involving a Douglas DC-8, Nigeria Airways Flight 2120, where a tire caught fire on takeoff, and the later spreading of the fire led to the destruction of the aircraft with the loss of 261 lives.[67] In another accident involving a fire on a McDonnell Douglas MD-11 on 2 September 1998, Swissair Flight 111 from New York to Geneva developed a cockpit fire in the electrical wiring that spread rapidly leading to a loss of flight instruments and control. The aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean with the loss of 229 lives 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) from shore southwest of Halifax International Airport, Nova Scotia, where the plane was attempting an emergency landing. In the Swissair case the transponders and communications were shut off as the crew pulled the busses in an attempt to control the fire.

Shoot-down theory[edit]

Political commentator Rush Limbaugh, according to CNN, speculated that the aircraft may have been shot down.[68] Supporters of this theory have noted that civilian aircraft have been shot down by military forces in the past, with Iran Air Flight 655 by the United States in 1988 and KAL 007 by the Soviet Union in 1983 being two frequently cited examples.[16] On 19 March 2014, news agency reporter Scott Mayerowitz of Associated Press described "Accidental Shootdown" as one of seven "leading, plausible theories", but added that there was "no evidence that Flight 370 was brought down by a government entity".[69] A Malaysian defence official, Ackbal bin Haji Abdul Samad, said it was "highly not possible" that his country's air force had shot down the plane.[70] According to the Financial Express, the Malaysian Air Force detected the plane on radar while it was in flight, but took no action because it was believed to be a "friendly" aircraft.[70]

In May 2014, author Nigel Cawthorne's book Flight MH370: The Mystery was published. Cawthorne alleged that after the jet was shot down during a US-Thai Joint Strike Fighter jet training exercise, searchers intentionally were sent astray as part of a sophisticated cover-up.[71] The book received considerable criticism, especially from The Australian where it was characterised thus: "Cawthorne undoes everybody’s good work by retrieving every obsolete and discredited non-fact from the trash, slapping the whole lot between covers."[72] Relatives of those aboard Flight 370 criticised the book as "premature and insensitive".[73]

In a CNN interview on 24 April 2014, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, stated only that the radar "tracked an aircraft which did a turn back, but they were not exactly sure whether it was MH370. What they were sure of was that the aircraft was not deemed to be hostile."[74]

On 22 December 2014, the former head of Proteus Airlines, Marc Dugain, claimed that the plane may have been shot down by US military personnel out of fear of an attack similar to the September 11 attacks on their Navy Base in Diego Garcia.[75] The claims were described by the source article as "wild".[75]

Cyberattack[edit]

The hypothesis that a cyberattack may have been carried out on Flight 370 has been raised, primarily based on statements made by Sally Leivesley, a former scientific advisor to the UK government.[76] Leivesley proposed that hackers may have changed the plane's speed, direction, and altitude using radio signals to the plane's flight management system.[77] Whether existing security on commercial flights is sufficient to prevent such an attack is also a matter of debate, although Boeing has dismissed the possibility. A spokeswoman for the company, Gayla Keller, said that they were "confident in the robust protection of all flight critical systems and inability for a hacker to gain access by either external or internal means on the 777 and all Boeing airplanes."[78]

While supporters of this theory have cited Hugo Teso's app which hacked into pilot-training software, which Teso presented at a conference in April 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration and other major governmental bodies dismissed the significance of the app. They stated that the software on an actual plane would be different from the software on which Teso had tested his app.[79]

MH17 and QZ8501 connections[edit]

On 17 July 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine. Because it, like Flight 370, was also a Boeing 777, some conspiracy theorists have suggested that the plane that crashed in Ukraine was actually Flight 370. This is based in part on photographs of the crash scene, which conspiracy theorists claim show that the plane that crashed in Ukraine had structural differences from MH17. Experts have dismissed this theory and argued that it is merely coincidental that both planes involved belonged to the same airline.[80]

When Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed on 28 December 2014, various similarities with MH370 were noted, including that both airlines were Malaysian-owned,[81][82] and that both planes lost contact with air traffic control.[83] There was also a reported conspiracy theory involving an alleged prediction on 15 December 2014 (and possibly repeated on 16 and 17 December[81]), by a user of the Chinese website Tianya Club whose name was reported by the English-speaking media to be 'Landlord' (a mis-translation[81][nb 1]). The user's post warned Chinese people to stay away from AirAsia as it would be attacked, as MH370 and MH17 allegedly had been (according to the user), as part of a conspiracy by a "black hand" or "despicable international bully" to harm Malaysian-owned airlines.[81][82] Other online posters suggested that the user was either a Chinese intelligence official or a hacker who had come across secret information.[81][82] Some sceptics suggested the user's posts or posting dates may have been retrospectively changed to create the false impression of a successful prediction.[81]

Physically improbable theories[edit]

The theory that MH370 may have been consumed by a black hole received considerable attention when Don Lemon asked, on CNN, whether it was "preposterous" that it could have happened.[89] Lemon was criticised for this by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show,[90] and by former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo, who, while appearing on CNN, said that "...a small black hole would suck in our entire universe so we know it's not that."[91] TheWire.com (which "wasn't satisfied" with Schiavo's answer) obtained detailed reasons why a black hole couldn't swallow a plane from Columbia University astronomy professor David J. Helfand and Peter Michelson, a professor of physics at Stanford University, reasons which did not involve any suggestion that a small black hole could suck in the entire universe.[92] Another hypothesis is that a meteorite might have struck the plane; however, the statistical probability for this is extremely low.[93]

Paranormal[edit]

A poll posted on CNN's website reported that 9% of respondents thought it was either very or somewhat likely that the plane was abducted by aliens, "time travelers or beings from another dimension". The poll, which has since been removed from the website, led to CNN being criticised by Perez Hilton for "indulg(ing) any wackadoo theory that might be good for TV ratings or internet clicks!"[94]

Pitbull and Shakira[edit]

As an example of an Internet theory which they imply their readers should not take seriously,[nb 2] The Independent and the Huffington Post have reported the suggestion that Pitbull and Shakira's song released in 2012 "Get It Started" displays prior knowledge of Flight 370's disappearance.[95][96] The lines cited most often by advocates of this conspiracy theory are "Now it's off to Malaysia" and "Two passports, three cities, two countries, one day".[96] The lyrics "No Ali, No Frazier, but for now off to Malaysia" were linked to 'Mr. Ali', who was referred to by the press as one of the Iranian passengers, even though Malaysian authorities have confirmed that the 19-year-old passenger is actually called Pouria Nourmohammadi.[95][96] (In the song, "Ali" actually refers to boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who beat another boxing legend, Joe Frazier, in the Thrilla in Manila on 1 October 1975).[97] Proponents of this theory have linked the "two passports" to the stolen Austrian and Italian passports used by two passengers to board the plane.[95] The reliable sources for this story dismiss the lyrics as "mere coincidence"[96] and indicate that to take it seriously would be "a terrible idea",[95] with supporters of the theory being described as "conspiracy theorists" and "YouTube illuminati".[96]

Satire about pilot reappearing[edit]

A satirical[98] report claimed that the captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah had reappeared in Taiwan, but was unable to remember what had happened.[99]

Claims of responsibility[edit]

On 9 March 2014, members of the Chinese news media received an open letter that claimed to be from the leader of the Chinese Martyrs Brigade, a previously unknown group. The letter claimed that the loss of Flight 370 was in retaliation for the Chinese government's response to the knife attacks at Kunming railway station on 1 March 2014 and part of the wider separatist campaign against Chinese control over Xinjiang province. The letter also listed unspecified grievances against the Malaysian government. The letter's claim was dismissed as fraudulent based on its lack of detail regarding the fate of Flight 370 and the fact that the name "Chinese Martyrs Brigade" appeared inconsistent with Uyghur separatist groups which describe themselves as "East Turkestan" and "Islamic" rather than "Chinese".[100][101]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The original Chinese forum[84] as well as Chinese news sites[85][86][87][88] cite the user's name as "老百姓有自己的乐", which can be translated as 'the common people have their own pleasures'. The Chinese term "楼主" could be hyper-literally read as 'master of a building', but this would be non-idiomatic, and in the context of Internet forums it invariably refers to the opener of a forum thread, referred to in English Internet slang as the 'original poster' or OP.
  2. ^ as indicated by expressions such as "that's a terrible idea" in The Independent,[95] and "Conspiracy Theorists" and "...according to the YouTube illuminati..." in The Huffington Post[96]

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Further reading[edit]