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What happened to Flight MH370? Debunking the myths


Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41am on 8th March 2014. Carrying mainly Chinese passengers, the Boeing 777’s destination was Beijing. 38 minutes after takeoff, the plane stopped communicating with Air Traffic Control. MH370 was tracked for a further hour by military radar as it flew over the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean. After that, it was never heard from again.

The search for MH370 became the most expensive in aviation history. Lasting three years, the search scoured 120,000 km2 of the Indian Ocean until it was called off in 2017 having found nothing. A private search was launched the following year by the contractor Ocean Infinity; again, no trace of the missing plane was found. Ocean Infinity is hoping to reopen its search in 2023 or 2024, pending approval from the Malaysian government.

The official explanation for the disappearance of MH370 is that it crashed into the Southern Indian Ocean. As reported by the BBC, in a news conference in 2014, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that Inmarsat (a satellite data company) and the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch 'have concluded that MH370 flew along the southern corridor, and that its last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth.

‘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.'

Many theories have been put forward since the plane’s disappearance. These range from the plausible, such as a hijacking or a cockpit fire, to the outlandish, such as alien abduction or the plane being sucked into a black hole.

Debris that was identified as belonging to MH370 washed up on the shores of islands in the western Indian Ocean in 2015 and 2016, which has put an end to some of the wilder rumours, but until the wreckage of the plane is found and its flight recorders are recovered, the true reason for its disappearance will continue to fuel speculation.

Here we take a look at some of the theories that have been put forward since the plane disappeared in 2014.

Hijacking was suggested as a possible cause almost immediately after the plane disappeared. More than 600 runways were identified where hijackers could have supposedly landed the plane. However, as PM Najib Razak confirmed, the plane’s final position was too far from any landing sites for this to be a possible explanation. When parts of Flight MH370 began washing up a year after the plane vanished, the idea that it had been hijacked and flown to an unknown location became highly unlikely.

The most popular hijacking theories are:

Terrorism - DEBUNKED

Speculation that the plane had been taken by terrorists was fuelled by speculation on social media. Russian media, meanwhile, floated the idea that terrorists had flown the plane to Afghanistan and were holding its passengers and crew hostage.

North Korea - DEBUNKED

A rumour on social media suggested that the plane had been hijacked and flown to North Korea, as had happened to Korean Airlines YS-11 in 1969. The rumour had little credibility as China is one of the few allies North Korea has, making the mass kidnapping of its citizens not only highly implausible, but also dangerous to a regime that relies so heavily on its neighbour.

Diego Garcia - DEBUNKED

Conspiracy theorists began circulating the idea online that the plane had been hijacked by the United States and flown to the US military base on the island of Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory. The US authorities strenuously denied they had any involvement with the plane’s disappearance and pointed towards the debris that began washing up in 2015 as proof.

Phantom Cellphone Theory – DEBUNKED

Several relatives and friends of passengers onboard Flight MH370 said they could still hear the phone ringing when they tried to contact passengers after the plane disappeared. This led people to claim that, because the passengers still had working phones, they must be alive and being held hostage somewhere. This theory was debunked by the wireless analyst Jeff Kagan who explained that ringing can still be heard after a phone has been destroyed as the network searches for a connection.

As well as the various hijacking theories, other explanations have been put forward. These are:

Pilot Suicide – UNPROVEN

According to aviation expert Ewan’s Wilson book Good Night Malaysian 370: The Truth Behind the Loss of Flight 370, Zaharie Shah, the plane’s pilot may have committed suicide.

The theory gained traction when it was discovered that Shah had made no social or professional plans after 8th March. Furthermore, Flight MH370 made three turns out of its scheduled flightpath that took in the island of Penang where Shah was born, leading former British Airways pilot Simon Hardy to suggest Shah was taking one last look at the island of his birth before destroying the plane. Shah’s family vehemently denies that the plane disappeared as a result of pilot suicide.

Shot Down - UNPROVEN

It has also been suggested that the plane had been shot down. Most people who believe this lay the blame at the door of the United States, with some suggesting it was taken out by accident as part of a joint US-Thai training exercise. Others say that the plane was deliberately brought down as it was feared it was going to be used as a weapon in a 9/11-style attack on the Diego Garcia military base. No credible evidence has ever been put forward to support these or other similar theories.


A somewhat more plausible theory is that a fire in the cockpit, in the cargo hold or elsewhere on the vehicle brought the plane down. Examples of previous fires were given to support this claim, such as the one which consumed EgyptAir Flight 667, destroying the Boeing 777 while it was on the ground, and Nigeria Airways Flight 2120 which caught fire shortly after takeoff.

Cyberattack – DEBUNKED

Sally Leivesley, a former scientific advisor to the British government, suggested that the plane may have been downed by a cyberattack. Boeing was quick to dismiss the theory, stating that they were confident in their critical flight system security measures and that a hacker was highly unlikely to overcome them.

Wild Theories – DEBUNKED

Whenever a tragedy occurs, some people reach for the most outlandish theories they can think of. MH370 was no exception, with suggestions ranging from the plane being sucked into another universe by a black hole to it being abducted by aliens. As per usual, there is no evidence to support these theories.

Until the wreck of MH370 is found, speculation will continue as to the real reason why it and the 227 passengers and 12 crew onboard disappeared in 2014.

A piece of debris belong to flight MH370 is displayed during the remembrance ceremony to mark the fifth anniversary of the Malaysian Airlines plane disappearance, 2019 | Image: Muhammad Amirul Azmi /

MH370: The Search Continues

All these years on from the disappearance of MH370, the crash remains one of the most perplexing puzzles in aviation history. Here’s the latest on the ongoing search for answers.

The radio technology revelation

Headlines were made in August 2023 with the publication of a new report into how a certain kind of technology may be used to pinpoint where the plane went down. Running to 232 pages, the document’s rather unassuming title – MH370 Flight Path Analysis Case Study – belies the tantalising revelations within.

Researchers Richard Godfrey, Hannes Coetzee and Simon Maskell have utilised Weak Signal Propagation Reporter (WSPR), a piece of software used by amateur radio stations to send and receive signals.

When planes fly through these signals they cause disturbances which are recorded in a digital database. In the words of the report, WSPR can be used as a ‘passive radar system to detect and track aircraft, where WSPR links between radio transmitters and receivers align with the aircraft position.’

Speaking to the Times, Richard Godfrey gave the analogy of a ‘prairie with invisible trip wires crossing the whole area’, where every step made by a hiker will disturb the wires, allowing the hiker’s progress to be tracked.

The researchers analysed 125 such disturbances to track MH370’s flight path after it went off course. This was combined with data from Boeing and Inmarsat satellites, as well as drift analysis of the debris recovered so far, to provide a ‘comprehensive picture of the final hours of flight MH370’. The researchers have been able to point to an area of the ocean around 1,560 kilometres west of Perth, Australia as the likely place where the plane finally crashed after exhausting its fuel.

Only some of this area has been searched so far, meaning that it may indeed yield the elusive wreckage of the doomed flight.

Evidence of a mass murder-suicide?

Richard Godfrey, a retired aerospace engineer, has also noted that the data from the radio signal disturbances has revealed something peculiar about MH370’s flight path.

Rather than flying on a straight course to the remote, southern Indian Ocean, the plane entered a holding pattern for 20 minutes, flying in a circle for reasons unknown, just off the coast of Sumatra. Godfrey has speculated this may have been because the pilot was communicating with somebody or was simply deciding where to go next.

In either case, it seems to add fuel to speculation that the destruction of MH370 was a deliberate action by the pilot, Zaharie Shah. What’s more, Godfrey has said that markings on one of the few pieces of debris to be recovered indicate that the plane’s landing gear had been extended at the time of impact with the ocean.

According to a report co-written by Godfrey, ‘The combination of the high speed impact designed to break up the aircraft and the extended landing gear designed to sink the aircraft as fast as possible both show a clear intent to hide the evidence of the crash.’

The secrets of the barnacles

As well as the publication of the WSPR report, 2023 saw another possible breakthrough in the form of an article in the science journal AGU Advances. It describes how a major clue to the fate of MH370 may be locked within an unlikely source: barnacles.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Dr Gregory Herbert, spoke about how he had a eureka moment after seeing a photo of debris from the plane. ‘The flaperon was covered in barnacles and as soon as I saw that, I immediately began sending emails to the search investigators because I knew the geochemistry of their shells could provide clues to the crash location.'

Since the composition of barnacles’ shell layers is determined by ocean conditions, the researchers are theoretically able to map out the drift patterns of plane debris which has barnacles growing on it.

‘We’ve proven this method can be applied to a barnacle that colonised on the debris shortly after the crash to reconstruct a complete drift path back to the crash origin,’ Dr Herbert has said.

The snag is that the oldest and largest barnacles attached to the debris are required for a complete mapping, and these have not been released for analysis at the time of writing.

Will the search resume?

Ocean Infinity, the marine robotics company which has already undertaken searches for MH370, has expressed its wish to return to the Indian Ocean and restart the quest for answers. The company has said that it has new, state-of-the-art vessels which are ready to get back on the case. But, according to Ocean Infinity’s CEO, it has not yet been given support by the Malaysian government, due to a lack of ‘credible new evidence’.

In November 2023, more than 40 Chinese relatives of passengers assumed to have perished on the flight wrote an open letter to the Malaysian government, asking for its support in a new search, and emphasising that they’re ‘willing to invest their own money or cooperate with capable individuals and companies’.

Given the recent findings involving the radio signals and barnacle shells, others have joined the chorus of calls for another investigation of the southern Indian Ocean. Until then, the riddle of MH370 will remain unsolved.