The mystery started with a routine red-eye journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. On March 8, 2014, 42 minutes after midnight, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777 aircraft designated MH370, rose into the moonlight night and headed northeast into the South China Sea. At 53, the pilot in command, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was one of Malaysia Airlines’ most senior and regarded pilots. They oversaw a crew of ten Malaysian flight attendants who transported 227 passengers. Together with 38 Malaysians and citizens of Indonesia, Australia, India, France, the United States, Iran, Ukraine, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Russia, and Taiwan, the bulk of individuals on board were Chinese.
The flight’s first 40 minutes were uneventful. MH370 neared the end of Malaysian airspace at 1.19 a.m. Malaysian air traffic control radioed for the airplane to be diverted to Ho Chi Minh City. “Good night, Zaharie,” Zaharie said. “We live in a society where we have mobile phones, radar, satellites, and surveillance, so it’s astonishing that over nine years later… we still have so little.” It was the last time anyone heard from the plane. Zaharie never spoke with his Vietnamese handlers. MH370 vanished from radar seconds after crossing into Vietnamese airspace. All future attempts to reach it were futile. Commercial planes are meant to be approachable, known, and traced at all times, yet MH370 was nowhere to be found.
According to a new Netflix film about the disappearance, what happened next was delayed uncertainty on the side of Malaysian authorities and the airline. While officials attempted to locate the plane, loved ones waited in Beijing for a flight that never arrived. Obsession, as the disappearance, captivated international viewers and sparked speculative thoughts for an ostensibly insurmountable mystery. Devastation as next of kin endured hours, days, weeks, months, and years of unanswered questions and inconclusive searches. And conjecture, as aviation professionals, engineers, data scientists, journalists, enthusiasts, and others spent years attempting to put together a befuddling jigsaw of facts into an explanation for the missing MH370.
That explanation is still unclear. “It’s the biggest aviation mystery of all time,” said MH370: The Aircraft That Disappeared filmmaker Louise Malkinson. “We live in a society where we have mobile phones, radar, satellites, and surveillance, so it’s astonishing that over nine years later… we still have so little.”
The three-part Netflix series seeks to put together the timeline using evidence discovered in the weeks and years after the disappearance. The Malaysian air force’s primary radar – that is, conventional radar that pings off objects in the sky – revealed that following MH370’s entrance into Vietnamese airspace, the airplane made an abrupt left turn and proceeded back, in a south-western direction, over the Malay peninsula. It banked around Penang, flew northwest along the Malacca Channel, and then out into the Andaman Sea, where it vanished from radar.
Yet, MH370 continued to communicate with a geostationary Indian Ocean satellite operated by the London-based business Inmarsat regularly for the next six hours. According to Inmarsat and several independent experts featured in the series, data from these seven electronic blips indicated that MH370 turned south once it reached the Andaman Sea, flew straight for hours until it ran out of fuel, and crashed into the southern Indian Ocean, somewhere between south-western Australia and Antarctica. Whoever was piloting the jet – most likely Zaharie, who had the skill to do such a maneuver but no known motivation – most likely depressurized the cabin early on, killing everyone on board hours before MH370 went down in the sea.
It is, at least, the “official” version, which is generally endorsed by the Independent Group of aviation professionals and scientists, as well as Australian investigators, who conducted an unsuccessful, years-long hunt for MH370 in a remote part of the Indian Ocean. It’s the one eloquently advocated by American aviation writer William Langewiesche in a 2019 Atlantic story, claiming that the Malaysian government, replete with corruption and not known for transparency, knew more about Zaharie’s personal life than it lets on. (The official Malaysian accident report, issued in July 2018, had no conclusive conclusions and did not rule out “unlawful influence by a third party.”) It’s also backed by the discovery of MH370 debris off the shores of Réunion, Madagascar, and Mozambique.
The Pilot, the opening episode of the series, reveals this storyline: a mass murder-suicide scheme by Zaharie, whose home flight simulator was discovered to have drawn a similar unusual course to that suggested by radar and satellite data. Following instances, however, demarcated by theory, hear competing hypotheses that see the previously given data as inconclusive, misconstrued, or invented. The second episode, The Hijack, presents a theory advanced by American aviation journalist and longtime MH370 enthusiast Jeff Wise that Russian operatives stole MH370 via the plane’s electronic bay, accessible via a hatch in the first-class cabin, to divert attention away from the Crimean war. (This would exclude the satellite data, which Wise said was manipulated as a deception.)
The third film, The Intercept, includes French journalist Florence de Changy, a south-east Asia correspondent for Le Monde, who speculates that the jet was shot down over the South China Sea by the US military to prevent mystery cargo from reaching China. (This implies that the radar sightings and satellite data provided by Inmarsat, a business that works with governments, were falsified as part of a cover-up. Both hypotheses presume that washed-up detritus was either misattributed or planted.) Ghyslain Wattrelos, a French businessman whose wife Laurence, 17-year-old son Hadrien, and 13-year-old daughter Ambre perished on MH370, has a similar view. (At the moment, the only continuing inquiry into the missing flight is Wattrelos’ legal action in France.)
The last two episodes consciously toe the line between asking questions and conspiracy – both Wise and De Changy confess their thoughts seem far-fetched to them. When asked about the decision to go down the rabbit hole of skepticism, studying or discarding many pieces of data, Malkinson cited the experience of fixation for those who lost someone on MH370 and those motivated to discover answers.
Indeed, the series plays like a slow-moving maze of facts, supposition, blanks, and anguish rather than a Tetris game of evidence. The radar sighting, the Inmarsat data, the downing of another Malaysian Airlines aircraft over Ukraine by the Russian military in July 2014, the wing flap discovered on Réunion, and the discovery of Zaharie’s flight simulator all occur in nearly chronological sequence over three hours. The sensation is one of perplexity as if you’re looking too hard at the map, hoping it’ll make sense.
“These are people who have been engaged in the tale since its inception, and they are disputing what has been called the official narrative,” Malkinson explained.
“The plane is most likely in the southern Indian Ocean,” she remarked when asked which scenario she thought was most believable.
In addition to the loss, several loved ones of those lost from seven different nations attest to the anguish of the mystery in the series. Others took to the streets to protest the Malaysian government’s shaky response. Others looked for closure in the trash-strewn on Madagascar’s beaches. Several people keep in touch with one another. “The next of kin has always been the core of the series for me,” stated Malkinson.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau halted the hunt for MH370 in the treacherous seas of the southern Indian Ocean in 2017. It was always an unlikely endeavor – a large area with an estimated ending, remote and pounded by storms, with undersea caves the size of the Grand Canyon.
Yet, Malkinson expressed optimism that the search might be resumed one day, for closure, confirmation, and, most importantly, for next of kin.