From time to time, an article is so compelling, so well-written, so unavoidably excellent, that it simply must be shared. The Atlantic's just-released upcoming cover story about the fate of a Malaysian Airlines jet that mysteriously vanished more than five years ago is one of those pieces. Writer William Langewiesche cuts through the conspiracy theories and marshals the best available evidence to paint a detailed and convincing picture of what very likely occurred on that doomed flight. It's deeply serious, and quite spooky. As someone who was somewhat intrigued by this story when it was a hot topic in 2014, then lost interest as the investigative trail grew cold, this new reporting includes information I'd never heard before. It looks very much like incompetence and corruption from Malaysia's government obstructed the various investigations along the way. Nevertheless, by piecing together faint technological footprints and the trail of discovered physical debris -- and laying out insights into a key suspect -- Langewiesche has crafted a seemingly definitive account of MH370's much-debated fate. The Malaysian and Vietnamese governments fumbled protocol after the plane disappeared from air traffic control's radar, resulting in a bungled initial search:
The search for it was initially concentrated in the South China Sea, between Malaysia and Vietnam. It was an international effort by 34 ships and 28 aircraft from seven different countries. But MH370 was nowhere near there. Within a matter of days, primary-radar records salvaged from air-traffic-control computers, and partially corroborated by secret Malaysian air-force data, revealed that as soon as MH370 disappeared from secondary radar, it turned sharply to the southwest, flew back across the Malay Peninsula, and banked around the island of Penang. From there it flew northwest up the Strait of Malacca and out across the Andaman Sea, where it faded beyond radar range into obscurity. That part of the flight took more than an hour to accomplish and suggested that this was not a standard case of a hijacking. Nor was it like an accident or pilot-suicide scenario that anyone had encountered before.
These paragraphs underscore the allure of the mystery:
The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish. This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.
The article profiles a man who became obsessed with the story, searching beachfronts for debris from the missing plane -- which eventually paid off in Mozambique, Madagascar, and other islands off the eastern coast of Africa. Based on satellite data and currents, it appears as though the huge aircraft was manually flown off course, then cruised for hours, finally plunging into a watery grave in the southern Indian Ocean -- many miles away from help or land. How and why this happened isn't perfectly clear, but the evidence points in one direction:
A lot can now be known with certainty about the fate of MH370. First, the disappearance was an intentional act. It is inconceivable that the known flight path, accompanied by radio and electronic silence, was caused by any combination of system failure and human error. Computer glitch, control-system collapse, squall lines, ice, lightning strike, bird strike, meteorite, volcanic ash, mechanical failure, sensor failure, instrument failure, radio failure, electrical failure, fire, smoke, explosive decompression, cargo explosion, pilot confusion, medical emergency, bomb, war, or act of God—none of these can explain the flight path. Second, 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. Control was seized from within the cockpit. This happened in the 20-minute period from 1:01 a.m., when the airplane leveled at 35,000 feet, to 1:21 a.m., when it disappeared from secondary radar.
Due to an explanation of why passengers were cleared of suspicion, and a persuasive deconstruction of various theories about outside hijackers, it becomes clear that some member or members of the flight crew were responsible for what happened. Could the two pilots have been working together for some reason? Unlikely, for reasons mentioned in the story. Before we get to the Whodunit, here's the probable Howdunit:
By the time the airplane dropped from the view of secondary—transponder-enhanced—radar, it is likely, given the implausibility of two pilots acting in concert, that one of them was incapacitated or dead, or had been locked out of the cockpit. Primary-radar records—both military and civilian—later indicated that whoever was flying MH370 must have switched off the autopilot, because the turn the airplane then made to the southwest was so tight that it had to have been flown by hand. Circumstances suggest that whoever was at the controls deliberately depressurized the airplane. At about the same time, much if not all of the electrical system was deliberately shut down. The reasons for that shutdown are not known. But one of its effects was to temporarily sever the satellite link. An electrical engineer in Boulder, Colorado, named Mike Exner, who is a prominent member of the Independent Group, has studied the radar data extensively. He believes that during the turn, the airplane climbed up to 40,000 feet, which was close to its limit. During the maneuver the passengers would have experienced some g-forces—that feeling of being suddenly pressed back into the seat. Exner believes the reason for the climb was to accelerate the effects of depressurizing the airplane, causing the rapid incapacitation and death of everyone in the cabin.
An intentional depressurization would have been an obvious way—and probably the only way—to subdue a potentially unruly cabin in an airplane that was going to remain in flight for hours to come. In the cabin, the effect would have gone unnoticed but for the sudden appearance of the drop-down oxygen masks and perhaps the cabin crew’s use of the few portable units of similar design. None of those cabin masks was intended for more than about 15 minutes of use during emergency descents to altitudes below 13,000 feet; they would have been of no value at all cruising at 40,000 feet. The cabin occupants would have become incapacitated within a couple of minutes, lost consciousness, and gently died without any choking or gasping for air. The scene would have been dimly lit by the emergency lights, with the dead belted into their seats, their faces nestled in the worthless oxygen masks dangling on tubes from the ceiling.
Hair-raisingly creepy. The person piloting the flight would have been fine, though: "The cockpit, by contrast, was equipped with four pressurized-oxygen masks linked to hours of supply. Whoever depressurized the airplane would have simply had to slap one on." Which brings us to the captain of MH370. The piece notes that despite the sunny official portrait offered of his happiness and mental health, Captain Zaharie was estranged from his wife, grappling with crippling feelings of isolation, and is strongly suspected to have been fighting clinical depression. He also had a flight simulator in his home, which contained one strand of strong evidence, uncovered by forensic examinations performed by the FBI:
[A review of] Zaharie’s simulator by the FBI revealed that he experimented with a flight profile roughly matching that of MH370—a flight north around Indonesia followed by a long run to the south, ending in fuel exhaustion over the Indian Ocean. Malaysian investigators dismissed this flight profile as merely one of several hundred that the simulator had recorded. That is true, as far as it goes, which is not far enough...Of all the profiles extracted from the simulator, the one that matched MH370’s path was the only one that Zaharie did not run as a continuous flight—in other words, taking off on the simulator and letting the flight play out, hour after hour, until it reached the destination airport. Instead he advanced the flight manually in multiple stages, repeatedly jumping the flight forward and subtracting the fuel as necessary until it was gone. Iannello believes that Zaharie was responsible for the diversion. Given that there was nothing technical that Zaharie could have learned by rehearsing the act on a gamelike Microsoft consumer product, Iannello suspects that the purpose of the simulator flight may have been to leave a bread-crumb trail to say goodbye. Referring to the flight profile that MH370 would follow, Iannello said of Zaharie, “It’s as if he was simulating a simulation.”
That cannot be a coincidence, can it? Here is the final envisioned vignette, supported by the known facts, of the flight's final moments -- with the Captain preparing for his demise, already responsible for the plane-full of dead bodies in the main cabin behind him:
It is easy to imagine Zaharie toward the end, strapped into an ultra-comfortable seat in the cockpit, inhabiting his cocoon in the glow of familiar instruments, knowing that there could be no return from what he had done, and feeling no need to hurry. He would long since have repressurized the airplane and warmed it to the right degree. There was the hum of the living machine, the beautiful abstractions on the flatscreen displays, the carefully considered backlighting of all the switches and circuit breakers. There was the gentle whoosh of the air rushing by. The cockpit is the deepest, most protective, most private sort of home. Around 7 a.m., the sun rose over the eastern horizon, to the airplane’s left. A few minutes later it lit the ocean far below. Had Zaharie already died in flight? He could at some point have depressurized the airplane again and brought his life to an end. This is disputed and far from certain. Indeed, there is some suspicion, from fuel-exhaustion simulations that investigators have run, that the airplane, if simply left alone, would not have dived quite as radically as the satellite data suggest that it did—a suspicion, in other words, that someone was at the controls at the end, actively helping to crash the airplane.
The author writes, "somewhere along the seventh arc [a reference best understood by reading the full account], after the engines failed from lack of fuel, the airplane entered a vicious spiral dive with descent rates that ultimately may have exceeded 15,000 feet a minute. We know from that descent rate, as well as from Blaine Gibson’s shattered debris, that the airplane disintegrated into confetti when it hit the water." The piece also notes that an eventual potential discovery of the flight's so-called 'black boxes' may not provide any finality to the mystery: "The cockpit voice recorder is a self-erasing two-hour loop, and is likely to contain only the sounds of the final alarms going off, unless whoever was at the controls was still alive and in a mood to provide explanations for posterity." This is an extraordinary and chilling piece of journalism, and the excerpts above only scratch the surface of the incredible deep-dive it achieves. Do yourself a favor and parcel out 15 good minutes to read the whole thing.
Most disturbing is the story's recapitulation of nearly half-a-dozen 'pilot death by suicide' incidents on commercial airliners since 1997. The official record does not -- yet -- count MH370 as among these instances. But perhaps it should. I have no special information or expertise that would prompt me to confidently declare the Atlantic piece the final word on MH370, but it's as thorough and credible as anything I've ever read about the aviation riddle that has confounded the world for years. Here's the audio cliffs notes version: