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Misinformation, outlandish theories and a tragic lack of ‘closure’ followed the March 8 disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 leaves just mystery

Emotion boils over as a relative of passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 demands answers about the flight’s fate during a protest outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing this week.
Credit: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

It was as near to confirmation as the families had received. “We must accept the painful reality that the aircraft is now lost, and that none of the passengers or crew on board survived,” said Mohamed Nor Yusof, the chairman of Malaysia Airlines. Here, finally, was the mournful result of a slow refinement of false leads and strained communication. 

An ashen Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, stood before the cameras. “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.”

That ocean is five kilometres deep in parts, largely unmapped and pocked by volcanoes, and it’s now being combed because of data received from 36,000 kilometres above it. Locked in geostationary orbit are a company of satellites belonging to British telecommunications company Inmarsat. They weigh thousands of kilograms and trace the earth’s equator at the same speed as our planet’s rotation, but are subtle and sensitive enough to have detected faint electronic pings from flight MH370.

It was Inmarsat’s scientists that posited the famous twin arcs – the possible northern and southern flight paths of MH370 – and the world watched perplexed as the Malaysian prime minister presented the modelling on March 15, confirming that the plane had been deliberately diverted. One path – the northern – bent up and gently westwards over Thailand, China and Kazakhstan. The path invited incredulity and fevered hope – could the jumbo have been secretly piloted to a rogue state? The southern path was more sobering – suggesting that, for unknown reasons, the airline found oblivion in remote waters thousands of kilometres from Beijing. 

The twin arcs suggested rival scenarios, and were a neat reflection of the dualism that had haunted the investigation so far. Around March 15, when investigators determined that onboard communications had been deliberately switched off, police searched the homes of the pilots. At one they found a sophisticated flight simulator. Was this perfectly normal – or sinister? Was the senior pilot’s collapsed marriage significant or irrelevant? When it was discovered that two passengers had boarded on stolen passports, well, were these passports used by men desperate for refuge – or for violent martyrdom? We seemed incapable of holding two opposing things simultaneously, and instead repelled the ambiguity by speculatively selecting one meaning. 

Cable news became awash with theories and instant experts, each shamelessly filling the vacuum. There was demand, but little supply. CNN host Don Lemon asked a former inspector general of the US Department of Transportation the following: “A lot of people have been asking about black holes and conspiracy theories and also referencing The Twilight Zone and Lost. I know it’s preposterous. But is it preposterous, Mary?”

Mary Schiavo was perfectly nonplussed: “Well, a small black hole would suck in our entire universe … and Lost is a TV show.”  

Well away from the cable news studios, Inmarsat was determined to narrow the possibilities, and began reconsidering the data. As it was, the search area was impractically massive. Scientists interpreted the satellite signals with the Doppler effect – an 1842 maxim on the shifting frequencies of waves depending upon the movement of its source – and had Boeing and the British space industry validate their findings. They were correct – Inmarsat staff had ruled out the northern corridor. “They were able to definitively say that the plane had undoubtedly taken the southern route,” Inmarsat’s senior vice-president of external affairs, Chris McLaughlin, said this week. 

Happily, the information complemented US spy satellite imagery of apparent debris in the southern Indian Ocean – 2500 kilometres west of Perth – news of which had circulated confidentially for days before an official statement. On Friday, March 20, Prime Minister Tony Abbott stood in the House of Representatives, buttoned his navy jacket and gently read a prepared script. “I would like to inform the House that new and credible information has come to light in relation to the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has received information, based on satellite imagery, of objects possibly related to the search. Following specialist analysis of the satellite imagery, two possible objects related to the search have been identified.” Soon, his statement would lead news bulletins across the globe.

That afternoon, AMSA’s John Young fronted the media. “The indications are of objects that are a reasonable size and are possibly awash, with water going up and down over the surface.” Sober and assured, Young was professionally unmoved by the press’s fishing trip for definitive statements. He reminded us that debris is found in the ocean all the time, often from merchant ships. We would have to wait for confirmation. 

A massive alliance of ships and planes, civil and private, Australian and international, converged in the area – one of the most dangerous in the world. Until now, weather has thwarted the search, but multiple radars have picked up what appear to be sizeable debris fields. What’s more, the original US intelligence was being mirrored by French and Chinese surveillance. But from the Pearce RAAF airbase, 40 kilometres north of Perth – the sudden host of the search parties and international media – Australian Defence Force vice-chief Mark Binskin reminded journalists that “we’re not searching for a needle in a haystack, we’re still trying to define where the haystack is. That’s just to put it in context.”

'All right, good night'

For a while, everything has seemed epic – the depth of grief, the scale of the search, the size of our ignorance. It has embarrassed our sense of modernity, a sense of ubiquitous surveillance. We have immodestly speculated, infuriated by our lack of understanding. We have talked inadequately about “closure” for families, an illusory and apocryphal grail. We have watched with embarrassment at the inelegant Malaysian investigation, and the weird truculence of Thailand when it was revealed it had not forwarded satellite intelligence because the authorities weren’t asked for it. 

Humbling still is the size of our planet. Debris from Air France Flight 447 was found within days of its hitting the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, but the black box was not recovered for two years – the final report released a year after that.

The final flight of United Airlines 93 – the fourth hijacked plane of September 11 – lent us the epithet “let’s roll”. They were the last overheard words of Todd Beamer, a passenger who speared an attempt to wrest the plane back from hijackers. They’re stirring words, a call to arms and a laconic affirmation of heroism. The phrase later featured as the title of a Neil Young song, then as a muscular peroration to President Bush’s speeches, and finally, and perhaps inevitably, as a trademark. Regardless, it resonates. 

Flight MH370 has given us one, too – “All right, good night” – and it resonates for different reasons. They are the last recorded words from the 777’s cockpit, but unlike “let’s roll” they are shorn of context. What should have been an utterly perfunctory phrase now beguiles us with its ordinariness. It may be years before we determine the context in which these words were spoken.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "MH370 leaves just mystery". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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