The enduring mystery of flight MH370

19:54, Mar 25 2014
The MH370 story in pictures
The saga begins on March 8, when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 departs Kuala Lumpur at 12:41am, local time. On board are 227 passengers and 12 crew.
The MH370 story in pictures
Captaining the flight of the Boeing 777-200 is 53-year old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, shown here on the right.
The MH370 story in pictures
At 1:21am the MH370's transponder stops signalling, halting the regular responses it usually gives to radar signals. The plane makes a series of strange but controlled movements, turning west sharply, then climbing above its designed height limit and back down.
The MH370 story in pictures
At 1.30am, on point 4, the plane is spotted for the last time on civilian radar. At 2.15am, on point 5, military radar spots it, although it is not clear at the time that this was MH370. Satellite data suggests the plane could also have angled towards point 6.
The MH370 story in pictures
At 6.32am air traffic control in Kuala Lumpur sends a radio signal on an emergency channel asking MH370 to contact them. The plane is now overdue at Beijing Airport, shown.
The MH370 story in pictures
Relatives of passengers despair, and the search begins.
The MH370 story in pictures
International news media focus on the story immediately.
The MH370 story in pictures
Multiple false leads pop up, like this oil spotted by a Vietnamese search plane.
The MH370 story in pictures
Malaysian government and airline officials have released confusing and contradictory information. Here, Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, left, and Department of Civil Aviation director general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman take questions at a press conference.
The MH370 story in pictures
Concerns are raised when it becomes apparent that two Iranian men, shown here, boarded the plane with stolen passports. Interpol rejects the suggestion of terrorism, however, concluding the men were probably asylum seekers.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
The search intensifies, covering new areas with a wide array of international support.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
Outpourings of grief and support are expressed worldwide.
The MH370 story in pictures
The anguish of the relatives is palpable.
The MH370 story in pictures
The anguish of the relatives is palpable.
The MH370 story in pictures
The anguish of the relatives is palpable.
The MH370 story in pictures
The anguish of the relatives is palpable.
The MH370 story in pictures
Theories abound. Fellow pilot Chris Goodfellow has suggested that a tyre may have caught fire, causing the pilots to turn towards the closest suitable airport, with the rapid ascent and descent perhaps representing an attempt to extinguish the fire. Critics of this theory have pointed out that the change in path was programmed into the plane's computer 12 minutes before the calm toned "good night" transmission, suggesting the change in course was planned.
The MH370 story in pictures
Given the amount of fuel on board, the plane could have made it as far north as Kazakhstan, on a possible flight path shown in orange.
The MH370 story in pictures
Or somewhere southwest of Australia, on a possible flight path shown in orange.
The MH370 story in pictures
Others have speculated that the pilot or co-pilot may have intentionally crashed the plane. The FBI is trying to restore deleted simulator-flights from Pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah's computer – but these could be innocuous. Critics of the crash theory say neither the pilot nor co-pilot had ever expressed any kind of radical sentiment or displayed mental issues, and both possessed adequate flying experience.
The MH370 story in pictures
The ever-present worry of terrorism remains. No groups have claimed responsibility for the incident, and a political motivation is unclear - but that doesn't rule it out.
MH370
On March 20, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told his parliament that objects had been spotted in waters hundreds of kilometres off the western Australian coast. Further searches, by Australian, New Zealand and US planes, were needed to find out if they were part of the missing plane.
Perth
The crew of one of two Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft used in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 walk away from their plane in Perth.
MH370 search
Thirty-eight days after the plane went missing, an Australian navy ship is guided into position by a Royal New Zealand Airforce P-3K2 Orion aircraft. Officials say they will deploy an underwater robot to aid in the hunt.
MH370
Announcing that an underwater drone will be deployed imminently, Joint Agency Co-ordination Centre chief Angus Houston says an oil slick has been detected in the search area for the missing plane.

Over an extraordinary 17 days and nights, until the moment Malaysia's prime minister stepped to a lectern to deliver investigators' sobering new findings, the fate of vanished flight MH370 hung on morbid conjecture and fragile hope.

Many previous tragedies have transfixed us by revealing their power in cruel detail. But the disappearance of the Beijing-bound Boeing 777 without warning or explanation captivated imaginations around the world in no small part because of the near vacuum of firm information or solid leads.

Nothing solid, that is, until late on Monday night (3am NZT), when Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that an analysis of the plane's last-known signals to a satellite showed that it went down somewhere in the desolate waters of the southern Indian Ocean - and that all on board perished.

It was a turning point of sorts in one of the most perplexing mysteries of modern times. Najib's statement offered some resolution - the plane has surely crashed - but little else. No one has found the plane, or the passengers, or the answer to why all this happened in the first place. And solving those riddles involves a search that looms dauntingly across a vast expanse of unforgiving ocean at the bottom of the earth.

The puzzle of flight MH370 has been complicated by a frustrating lack of hard facts since it vanished on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8. Who could say what might have happened in the cockpit or the cabin - or who or what was responsible? Who knew where the plane had gone - up or down, north or south - or what had become of its 239 passengers and crew?

Hungry for answers, officials and investigators, relatives and reporters focused their questions fruitlessly on the two Iranian passengers who boarded the plane with stolen passports; then on the oil slicks in the Gulf of Thailand; then on the rumours that a Uighur passenger might have harboured anti-Chinese motives; then on the pilot's home flight simulator.

The reluctance of Malaysian officials to reveal what they knew and sometimes to offer conflicting information only seemed to feed the doubts, even after many of the nefarious scenarios suggested early on were dismissed. And with limited evidence and not even a bit of confirmed wreckage, everyone from experts on aviation and terrorism to armchair travellers was left to speculate.

It may have been hard to take rocker Courtney Love seriously when she posted a photo on Facebook showing an oil slick off the coast of Malaysia and suggested that it revealed the location of the missing plane. But when a fake news story showed up online supposedly quoting Sarah Palin as saying she believed the plane had flown directly to heaven, its plausibility hinged not on the former Alaska governor, but on the fact that just about anybody could and seemingly did have an opinion on the flight's fate.

That's probably because most people felt connected to it and, therefore, invested in it. As Australia's opposition leader Bill Shorten put it: "There is something about a plane disappearing which links all the citizens of the globe. These people who disappeared on this flight could be any of us."

While many of the theories presented were well-informed speculation based on deep experience and thoughtful analysis, they all had one flaw or another, and could not dispel the void. With so little to go on, families of those aboard grasped at the clouds of uncertainty, which allowed them to maintain a sense, however shaky, that that the plane might possibly be found intact, their relatives found alive.

"Dearest love, I hope you are able to get some rest where you are, and that they are feeding you," Sarah Bajc wrote last week in a Facebook post to her boyfriend, Philip Wood, a native of Texas who was on board. "Any chance they include a glass of wine with dinner?"

It was one of a heartbreaking string of love notes she sent out into the electronic ether, as she clung to the hope that her partner was still alive. A few days later: "Hi baby, It has been a lazy Sunday here. I cannot imagine what you must be going through." Later still: "Good morning baby, how are you holding up? I'm doing my best to bring you hope and courage to continue the fight."

And fight the families did - for any scrap of information that might reveal their loved ones' fate. Gut-wrenching grief, frustration and, eventually, rage bubbled over among some of the family members, who accused the Malaysian government of withholding information. Before a news briefing in Kuala Lumpur, two Chinese relatives of passengers held up a banner demanding the truth.

"I want to see my son," one of the women cried, before being carried away by security as she wept and screamed.

And then, at last, came a break - or at least, what seemed like one. On March 20, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stunned the world when he stood up during what had been a routine session of parliament, slipped on his glasses and began to read from a statement:

"New and credible information has come to light in relation to the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean," he began. "The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has received information based on satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search."

The objects - two blurry, whitish blobs captured in a satellite image - were located in a patch of the Indian Ocean, near absolutely nothing. The closest major body of land was Australia's west coast, 2500 kilometres away.

The hunt was on in earnest. Military planes from Australia, the US and New Zealand had already been searching the area and more planes from China and Japan were sent to help, while an Australian navy supply ship, the HMAS Success, scoured the waters, some of the roughest and remotest in the world.

More potential clues began popping up: A civil aircraft taking part in the search on Saturday spotted several small objects floating in the water, including a wooden pallet surrounded by straps. Could it have been from the aircraft? Malaysia Airlines confirmed the flight did, indeed, have wooden pallets on board. But pallets are also commonly used in the shipping industry. A New Zealand military aircraft tried to find the objects for closer inspection, but found only clumps of seaweed.

The sense that searchers were getting close grew when more satellite data emerged; China announced it had captured a large object within the search zone on one of its satellites, and France said it had satellite data that may have identified debris from the missing plane.

More objects of potential interest were spotted by the search planes criss-crossing the skies: a grey or green circular object and an orange rectangular object. A white, square object glimpsed through a break in the clouds.

The US sent a Towed Pinger Locator to the region in case a debris field was found, in the hopes it could locate the plane's so-called black box. An Australian navy support vessel, the Ocean Shield, equipped with acoustic detection equipment, was also moving into the search zone.

But except for analysts' fresh conclusion based on satellite data that the flight had gone down, there are still no hard answers. And finding the jet remains far from a certainty.

For Bajc, the woman who has all along refused to give up hope that her boyfriend is still alive, Malaysia's fatalist announcement offered little resolution.

"I need closure to be certain but cannot keep on with public efforts against all odds," she wrote in an email. "I STILL feel his presence, so perhaps it was his soul all along."

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MH370 announcement
A relative of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines MH370 cries after watching a television broadcast of a news conference, in the Lido hotel in Beijing.
MH370 announcement
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (centre) makes an announcement on the latest development on the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane. "This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites. It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean."
MH370 announcement
A family member of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 falls down an escalator as he cries after the news that the plane crashed in the southern Indian Ocean and there were no survivors.
MH370 announcement
Selamat Omar (right), father of flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat who was on board the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, sits next to his wife Rosila Abu Samah as he speaks on the phone at the hotel where he and other relatives of passengers are staying.
MH370 announcement
A family member of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries after watching a television broadcast of a news conference where Malaysia's PM announced the plane crashed in the southern Indian Ocean.
MH370 announcement
Medical personnel transport a family member who collapsed after hearing all hope was lost of finding survivors of MH370.
MH370 announcement
Family members of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines MH370 look out from a room as they cry after watching a television broadcast of a news conference, in the Lido hotel in Beijing.
MH370 announcement
A man cries after hearing the Malaysian prime minister's announcement.
MH370
A family member of a passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is cared for after fainting at the Lido Hotel.
MH370
A family member of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines MH370 shouts at journalists after hearing the news that all hope had been lost of finding survivors of MH370.
MH370 reactino
A family member of a passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 leaves on a stretcher after fainting at Lido Hotel.
MH370 announcement
The man is comforted by another grieving family member.
Kiwis search for MH370
Crew member Garrick Anderson prepares to throw a GPS tracking buoy into the southern Indian Ocean to mark the position of a solid object in the water.
Kiwis search for MH370
Radar specialists are pictured aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean on March 22.
Kiwis search for MH370
Solid matter is pictured floating in the southern Indian Ocean seen from a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion.
Kiwis search for MH370
Pilot Dave Smith looks out onto the southern Indian Ocean.
Kiwis search for MH370
Squadron leader Brett McKenzie takes notes of other search aircraft on the windshield of a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Kiwis search for MH370
A flight engineer aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft starts the engines before taking off to search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean, at RAAF base Pearce near Perth.
Kiwis search for MH370
A pod of dolphins is seen from a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion.
Kiwis search for MH370
Squadron leader Brett McKenzie takes notes of other search aircraft.
Kiwis search fro MH370
A crew member keeps a look out for any evidence of the missing plane.
Kiwis search fro MH370
Crew member Sunil Unka looks out his window for any evidence of the missing plane.
Kiwis search fro MH370
Pilot Dave Smith looks out onto the southern Indian Ocean.
Kiwis search fro MH370
Pilots Brett McKenzie (left) and Dave Smith look out onto the southern Indian Ocean aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Kiwis search fro MH370
The sprawling search area.
Kiwis search fro MH370
Pilot Dave Smith (right) gives a pre-flight briefing before taking off to search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at the RAAF base Pearce near Perth.
Kiwis search fro MH370
Flight engineer Justin Pike (left) and Squadron Leader Brett McKenzie are pictured in the cockpit.
Kiwis search fro MH370
The southern Indian Ocean is pictured at 500 feet above sea level.
Kiwis search fro MH370
Stars are seen in the sky above the southern Indian Ocean as a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft returns to Perth from its 11-hour long flight searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Kiwis search for MH370
Flight engineers confer.
Kiwis search for MH370
A crewman aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searches for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean.
Kiwis search for MH370
Squadron leader Brett McKenzie marks the name of another search aircraft on the windshield.
Kiwis search for MH370
Pilots and engineers sit in the dark cockpit of a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft as they return at night from the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean on March 22.
Kiwis search for MH370
A kiwi is pictured on the vest of a crew member aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft upon its return to RAAF base Pearce.
Kiwis search for MH370
A Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion aircraft prepares to take-off from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Pearce Base to join the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in Perth.
MH370
TRACING MH370: A person works at satellite communications company Inmarsat, at their headquarters in London. Inmarsat helped trace the missing plane into the southern Indian Ocean.

AP