The mystery began as a standard red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Forty-two minutes after midnight on March 8th, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 370, a Boeing 777 jet designated MH370, climbed into the moonlit night and turned northeast, toward the South China Sea. The first officer, Fariq Hamid, was 27 years old and one training flight away from full certification. The pilot in command, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was, at 53, one of the most senior and respected pilots for Malaysia Airlines. They led a crew of 10 flight attendants, all Malaysian, and ferried 227 passengers. The majority of those on board were Chinese, along with 38 Malaysians and citizens of Indonesia, Australia, India, France, the United States, Iran, Ukraine, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Russia and Taiwan.
The first 40 minutes of the flight was unremarkable. At 1.19am, MH370 approached the end of Malaysian airspace. Malaysian air-traffic control radioed to pass the flight off to Ho Chi Minh. Zaharie answered, “Good night. Malaysian three-seven-zero” – he didn’t repeat the frequency, but that’s not unusual. It was the last anyone heard from the flight. Zaharie never checked in with Vietnamese controllers. Seconds after it crossed into Vietnamese airspace, MH370 disappeared from radar. All subsequent attempts to contact it were unsuccessful. Commercial aircraft are supposed to be reachable at all times, known and tracked, but MH370 was gone.
What followed, as recounted in a new Netflix series about the disappearance, was delayed confusion, on the part of Malaysian controllers and the airline. Shock, as officials scrambled to find the aircraft and loved ones waited in Beijing for a flight that never arrived. Obsession, as the disappearance transfixed international audiences and prompted armchair theories for a seemingly impossible mystery. Devastation, as next of kin suffered through hours, then days, then weeks, months and years of question marks and inconclusive searches. And speculation, as aviation experts, engineers, data scientists, journalists, hobbyists and more tried for years to piece together a confounding puzzle of evidence into an explanation for the disappearance of MH370.
That explanation remains elusive. “It’s the greatest aviation mystery of all time,” says Louise Malkinson, the director of MH370: The Plane That Disappeared. “This is a world where we have mobile phones and radar and satellites and tracking, and so to be nearly nine years down the line ... and still have so little is extraordinary.”
The three-part Netflix series attempts to piece together the timeline based on evidence that emerged in the weeks and years following the disappearance. Primary radar – which is to say conventional radar, which pings off objects in the sky – from the Malaysian air force indicated that following MH370’s entry into Vietnamese airspace the flight made a sharp left turn and headed back, in a southwesterly direction, over the Malay Peninsula. It banked around the island of Penang, flew northwest up the Strait of Malacca, and headed out over the Andaman Sea, where it dropped off radar.
But MH370 did continue to link up periodically, over the course of six hours, with a geostationary Indian Ocean satellite operated by the London-based company Inmarsat. Data from these seven electronic blips indicated, according to Inmarsat and several independent experts who appear in the series, that MH370 turned southward once it reached the Andaman Sea, flew straight for hours until it ran out of fuel, and plunged into the southern Indian Ocean, somewhere between southwestern Australia and Antarctica. Whoever was flying the plane – most point to Zaharie, who had the expertise to execute such a manoeuvre though no known motive – likely depressurised the cabin early on, killing everyone on board hours before MH370 dropped into the sea.
That is the “official” narrative, at least – one largely supported by a collection of aviation experts and scientists known as the Independent Group and Australian investigators, who led a futile, years-long search for MH370 in a remote slice of the Indian Ocean. It’s the one cogently argued by the American aviation writer William Langewiesche in a 2019 report for the Atlantic, which supposed that the Malaysian government, rife with corruption and not known for transparency, knew more about Zaharie’s personal life than it let on. (The official Malaysian accident report, released in July 2018, offered no definitive conclusions and did not rule out “unlawful interference by a third party”.) It’s also supported by the fact that debris attributed to MH370 has been found on the coasts of Réunion, Madagascar and Mozambique.
The first episode of the series, called The Pilot, outlines this narrative: a mass murder-suicide plot by Zaharie, whose home flight simulator was found to have mapped a similar strange path as the one indicated by radar and satellite data. But subsequent episodes, delineated by theory, hear contradictory theories that regard the evidence previously cited as either inconclusive, misinterpreted or fabricated. The second episode, The Hijack, presents a theory put forth by the American aviation journalist and long-time MH370 obsessive Jeff Wise that Russian operatives stole MH370 via the plane’s electronic bay, accessible by a hatch in the first-class cabin, to distract from the Crimean war. (This would ignore the satellite data, which Wise said was tampered with as a decoy.)
The third, The Intercept, features the French journalist Florence de Changy, a Southeast Asia correspondent for Le Monde, who speculates that the plane was shot down over the South China Sea by the US military to prevent mysterious cargo from reaching China. (This would suppose that the radar sightings and satellite data by Inmarsat, a company that works with governments, was fabricated as part of a cover-up. Both theories assume washed-up debris was either wrongly attributed or planted.) A similar theory is proffered by Ghyslain Wattrelos, a French businessman whose wife, Laurence, 17-year-old son, Hadrien, and 13-year-old daughter, Ambre, were lost on MH370. (Wattrelos’s legal case in France is currently the only ongoing investigation into the missing flight.)
It’s a fine line between asking questions and conspiracy, and the latter two episodes knowingly toe it – both Wise and de Changy admit their theories sound far-fetched to them, too. Asked on the decision to proceed down the rabbit hole of doubt, dissecting or dismissing different pieces of evidence, Malkinson points to the experience of obsession, for those who lost someone aboard MH370 and those determined to find answers. The series is “not just about what happened”, she says. “It’s about the people that have been consumed by this for the past nine years ... It’s about what does a mystery like this do to the people who are involved in it?”
The heart of the series for me has always been the next of kin. To try and even understand the complex trauma of ambiguous loss— Director Louise Malkinson
Indeed, the series plays not as a Tetris game of evidence but as a slow-moving maze of facts, conjecture, blanks and grief. Major developments – the radar sighting, the Inmarsat data, the downing of another Malaysian airlines flight by the Russian military over Ukraine in July 2014, the wing flap found on Réunion, the revelation of Zaharie’s flight simulator – appear in roughly chronological order over the course of three hours. The feeling is more confusion, squinting too hard at the map willing it to make sense, than conspiracy.
“These are people that have been involved in the story from the very beginning, and they are questioning what has been deemed the official narrative,” says Malkinson. “They’ve written extensively on it, they’ve done a huge amount of research and, yes, they may be joining their dots together in a way that people don’t agree with, but they have definitely put the time and effort into it, and they are posing questions that haven’t necessarily always been answered.”
“It’s most likely that the plane is in the southern Indian Ocean,” she says when asked which theory she finds most credible. “But how and why it ended up there, we just don’t know.”
“There are still a lot of questions that haven’t been answered, and so I don’t know what happened,” she says. “I know that some of the theories are more far-fetched than the others, but I think what’s the most important thing for me is that the next of kin still don’t have all the answers, and that actually this mystery hasn’t been solved.”
Several loved ones of those lost, from seven different countries, testify to the pain of the mystery in the series, in addition to the grief. Some turned to political action, publicly protesting against the Malaysian government’s wobbly response. Others searched for closure in the bits of debris found on Madagascan beaches. Many stay in contact with each other. “The heart of the series for me has always been the next of kin,” says Malkinson. “To try and even understand the complex trauma of ambiguous loss. The just not knowing – it’s incomprehensible.”
“The people that we’ve spoken to, their biggest fear is that this does get forgotten, and it’s just a tragic event that they have to move on from,” she adds. In 2017, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau suspended the search for MH370 in the rough waters of the southern Indian Ocean. It was always an improbable mission – a vast area based on an estimated endpoint, remote and battered by storms, with seafloor caverns like the Grand Canyon.
Still, Malkinson says she hopes for a search to one day resume, for closure, for confirmation and, most importantly, for next of kin. “I think that we can’t be in a world that a 777 has gone missing and it’s very tragic and we have to move on – that shouldn’t happen.”
MH370: The Plane That Disappeared is streaming on Netflix from Wednesday, March 8th