On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the 239 people on-board took off into the night’s sky from Kuala Lumpur, never to be seen or heard from again.
In the nine years since, one of the world’s largest aviation disasters still remains one of the great mysteries of our age, with no investigation resulting in a definitive answer to the question of what happened to the plane, its passengers and its crew.
What we do know is that MH370 – a Boeing 777 – left Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41am local time and travelled north-east over Malaysia and out over the South China Sea, destined for Beijing Capital International Airport.
The crew last communicated with air traffic control 38 minutes after takeoff, around halfway between Malaysia and Vietnam.
Minutes after, it is believed to have suddenly deviated westward from its planned flight path.Military radar tracked MH370 across the Malay Peninsular and over the Andaman Sea, before it left radar range 230 miles northwest of Penang Island.
On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the 239 people on-board took off into the night’s sky from Kuala Lumpur, never to be seen or heard from again. Pictured: The missing aircraft taking off in France in 2011
The most persistent theory has centred on the pilot – Zaharie Ahmad Shah (pictured) – and suggestions that it was a deliberate act because he was facing personal problems
What we do know is that MH370 – a Boeing 777 – left Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41am local time and travelled north-east over Malaysia and out over the South China Sea, destined for Beijing Capital International Airport.Pictured: A map showing its route
The last primary radar contact was made at 2.22am, when it vanished, as if into thin air. All 239 people on the aircraft are presumed dead.
The most expensive search in the history of aviation was launched.In the following years, debris confirmed or believed to be from the MH370 aircraft was found washed up along the African coast and on islands in the Indian Ocean.
However, despite the extensive searches, no one has been able to answer the question definitively: What happened to flight MH370?
Many theories have formed in the absence of any answers, as has anger in China (most passengers were of Chinese origin) and Malaysia.
Such theories include a mass hypoxia event, a possible hijacking, a murder-suicide plot, and even claims the US air force was responsible.
Today, MailOnline looks at some of the theories behind what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, ranging from the rational hypothesis to the conspiratorial.
THEORY: A MURDER-SUICIDE PLOT CARRIED OUT BY THE PILOT
The most persistent theory has centred on the pilot – Zaharie Ahmad Shah – and suggestions that it was a deliberate act because he was facing personal problems.
Theories posit that he locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit, closed down all communications, depressurised the main cabin and then disabled the aircraft so that it continued flying on auto-pilot until it ran out of fuel.
This was the popular theory in the weeks after the plane’s disappearance.
His personal problems, rumours said, included a split with his wife Fizah Khan, and his fury that a relative, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, had been given a five-year jail sentence for sodomy shortly before he boarded the plane for the flight to Beijing.
But the pilot’s wife angrily denied any personal problems, while other family members and friends said he was a devoted family man and loved his job.
This theory was also the conclusion of the first independent study into the disaster by the New Zealand-based air accident investigator, Ewan Wilson.
Wilson, the founder of Kiwi Airlines and a commercial pilot himself, said he arrived at the conclusion after considering ‘every conceivable alternative scenario’.
However, he has not been able to provide any conclusive evidence to support his theory.The claims are made in the book ‘Goodnight Malaysian 370’, which Wilson co-wrote with the New Zealand broadsheet journalist, Geoff Taylor.
Journalist Ean Higgins also put forward a similar theory in his book, ‘The Hunt for MH370’.He writes that the ‘rogue pilot’ carried out a complex murder-suicide plan in a way that ensured the plane’s remains and the bodies would never be found.
Theories posit that Zaharie Ahmad Shah locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit, closed down all communications, depressurised the main cabin and then disabled the aircraft so that it continued flying on auto-pilot until it ran out of fuel
According to the theory, Shah manually turned off the plane’s automatic transmission of flight data before taking out his bag and putting on a jumper, a scarf, an insulated jacket, light gloves and a woollen cap.
He then put on his oxygen mask and turned off the cabin lights, forcing the passengers into darkness.Shah pressed a button above his head to turn off the cabin’s pressurisation system forcing it into a rapid decompression.
The passengers in the cabin and Shah’s co-pilot Fariq Abudl Hamid – who had left the cockpit to fetch Shah a cup of coffee – were left in complete darkness, Higgins says.
Many would have been thrown to the ground by the sharp turn which lasted more than two minutes as the plane turned back south-west, and tithin four minutes, passengers who were unable to put on their oxygen masks in the darkness would have lost consciousness, before suffering brain damage or death.
Even those who were able to put on their oxygen masks would only have lived 12 minutes longer than those that didn’t before running out of air.
Mr Higgins said this theory would explain why there were no distressed text messages or calls from passengers as the flight passed over built up areas.
Shah’s ‘ruthlessly effective murderous plan’ was perfectly timed, Mr Higgins wrote. After 30 minutes, he pushed The Journal pressurisation button to ‘on’ and was able to remove his warm clothing and continue his flight.
He flew along the airspace border between Malaysia and Thailand in an attempt to confuse authorities before turning towards the Indian Ocean.
Shah’s ‘calculated, pre-planned and complex strategy’ was to finish with a controlled ditching of the aircraft into the ocean, causing it to break into a few pieces and then sink.
The pilot glided the plane onto the water and Shah was knocked out on impact and drowned about 8.30am on March 8, having flown the plane for almost eight hours.
‘In an act of mass murder-suicide, he had made a jetliner, himself and the 238 innocent souls on board vanish without a trace in one of the world’s deepest, wildest and most remote stretches of sea,’ Mr Higgins wrote.
It’s also been rumoured that Zaharie used a flight simulator at his home to plot a path to a remote island, seen as an incriminating piece of evidence by many.
However, officials in Kuala Lumpur declared that Malaysian police and the FBI’s technical experts had found nothing to suggest he was planning to hijack the flight after closely examining his flight simulator.
There are also theories that the tragic disappearance may have been a heroic act of sacrifice by the pilot to save people on the ground.
Australian aviation enthusiast Michael Gilbert believes the doomed plane caught fire mid-flight, forcing the pilot to plot a course away from heavily populated areas.
The final MH370 report on the investigation into the disappearance said ‘there is no evidence to suggest any recent behavioral changes for the [pilot].’
THEORY: THE CO-PILOT WAS RESPONSIBLE
Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid (pictured), 27 was suspected by rumour-spreaders to have overpowered the pilot and disabled the aircraft, again for personal problems
Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27 was suspected by rumour-spreaders to have overpowered the pilot and disabled the aircraft, again for personal problems.
Some suggested he flew the plane to its doom with crew and passengers unable to get through the locked door of the cockpit.
Theorists have put forward the suggestion that he was having relationship problems, and this was his dramatic way of taking his own life.
But he was engaged to be married to Captain Nadira Ramli, 26, a fellow pilot from another airline, and loved his job.There are no known reasons for him to have taken any fatal action.
Others have suggested that because he was known to have occasionally invited young women into the cockpit during a flight, he had done so this time and something had gone wrong.
Young Jonti Roos said in March that she spent an entire flight in 2011 in the cockpit being entertained by Hamid, who was smoking.
Interest in the co-pilot was renewed when it was revealed he was the last person to communicate from the cockpit after the communication system was cut off.
THEORY: THE US SHOT DOWN THE AIRCRAFT
At least two theories have been put forward suggesting that the United States was responsible for shooting down the aircraft.
One suggests Washington feared MH370 had been hijacked and was about to be used to attack the US military base on Diego Garcia atoll in the Indian Ocean.
And former French airline director Marc Dugain said he had been warned by British intelligence that he was taking risks by investigating this angle.
However, there is no way of checking whether Dugain received such a warning or why he believes the Americans shot down the plane.
But adding to the theory that the aircraft was flown to Diego Garcia, either by the pilot Zaharie or a hijacker, was the claim that on the pilot’s home flight simulator was a ‘practice’ flight to the island.
Professor Anthony Glees, an author and the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, said: ‘The Americans would have no interest in doing anything of the kind and not telling the world.
‘In theory, they might wish to shoot down a plane they thought was attacking them but they wouldn’t just fire missiles, they’d investigate it first with fighters and would quickly realise that even if it had to be shot down, the world would need to know.’
Author and aviation consultant Alastair Rosenschein said: ‘The U.S.would not have been able to hide this fact and in any event, if it were true, they would have admitted their action as it would have prevented a successful terrorist action on this occasion and acted as a deterrent for future terrorist attacks.’
Another theory was put forward by French journalist Florence de Changy in her 2021 book ‘The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370’.
Pictured: A Boeing 777 flaperon cut down to match the one from flight MH370 found on Reunion island off the coast of Africa in 2015 (file photo)
Another theory was put forward by French journalist Florence de Changy in her 2021 book ‘The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370’ in which she said the US shot MH370 down
After spending 14 chapters dispelling a number of the theories surrounding the disappearance, she put forward her own: that MH370 was brought down by the United States Air Force after a failed attempt to intercept the plane and seize a shipment of ‘electronic equipment’ that was en-route to Beijing
The US, she writes, did not want China to have the equipment.
She says on the Being-777’s cargo was 2.5 tonnes of ‘poorly documented Motorola electronics equipment,’ she says.The author suggests that this belonged to the US, and that China wanted to get their hands on it. Investigating the cargo, de Changy writes that it had not undergone the proper security screening.
At the time, the US – under Barack Obama’s administration – was withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Some believe the mystery cargo to be the remains of a drone downed in Pakistan, or military equipment captured by the Taliban.
De Changy says whatever it was, Beijing – under the new leadership of Xi Jinping at the time – wanted to get its hands of it, and had routed it through Kuala Lumpar to be taken to Beijing on a nigh-time passenger jet.
But when the US caught wind of the plot, de Changy suggests the rival superpower came up with a plan to intercept the cargo, and to force MH370 to land, confiscate the cargo, and send it on its way to Beijing with just a two-hour delay.
At the time, de Changy reports the US was participating in an air defence operation in the region, and that the plan could be masked as a training operation.
Furthermore, Waypoint IGARI – The ‘transfer of control’ point, when Malaysia air traffic control hands over to its Vietnamese counterparts on the route being taken by MH370 – is controlled by Singapore, a US ally.
At this point of the flight, de Changy suggests that two US Airborne Early Warning (Awacs) planes could have sandwiched MH370 – from above and below – completely blocking its magnetic field and all communications, rendering it invisible.
At this point, Pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah would have been ordered by the US to land the plane at a nearby airbase, likely airbase U-Tapao in Thailand, de Changy says.
What the planning did not account for, however, was the pilot’s refusal to follow such orders, instead perhaps saying he would maintain his course to Beijing until he was told otherwise by Malaysia Airlines.
It’s possible that the pilot and co-pilot attempted to take a shortcut to reach Chinese airspace more quickly, de Changy suggests, but their attempt to escape the clutches of the US planes failed.
‘The shooting down could have been a blunder, but it could have also been a last resort to stop the plane and its special cargo from falling into Chinese hands.’
She also suggests that China could have struck the plane after seeing MH370 and US aircraft flying towards its airspace.
Supporters of the theory that the aircraft could have been shot down, by the US or anyone else, have pointed to such events happening in the past.
Iran Air Flight 655 was downed by the United States in 1988, and flight KAL 007 was shot down by the Soviet Union in 1983.Associated Press reporter Scott Mayerowitz wrote that an ‘accidental shootdown’ was one of seven ‘plausible theories’.
However, he added that there was ‘no evidence that Flight 370 was brought down by a government entity’.
THEORY: RUSSIANS STOLE MH370 AND FLEW THE JET TO KAZAKHSTAN
One discredited expert claimed the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was hijacked on the orders of Vladimir Putin and secretly landed in Kazakhstan.
Jeff Wise, a U.S.science writer who also sat on the Independent Group (a watchdog panel of aviation experts established to find the truth on the flight’s final hours) suggested MH370 was somehow linked to another Malaysia airlines flight – MH17.
MH17 was shot down flying over eastern Ukraine during the war in the Donbas region between Kyiv’s forces and Russian separatist forces on July 17, 2014 – just four months after MH370 vanished.Two Russians and a Ukrainian were found guilty in November last year of murdering all 298 people on board by shooting it down.
Wise, who checked flight logs, noted there were three Russians on board MH370, all of whom were seated near an electrical hatch.
He put forward a theory saying that two of the Russians created a diversion while the other member went below deck to remotely control the plane’s flight.
In this February 23, 2016 file photo, a waiter walks past a mural of flight MH370 in Shah Alam outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – the city where the plane took off from two years earlier
Wise said he believes the hijackers ‘spoofed’ the plane’s navigation data to make it seem like it went in another direction, but flew it to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is leased from Kazakhstan by Russia.
He based his theory on pings the plane gave off for seven hours after it went missing, that were recorded by British telecommunications company Inmarsat.
However, Wise admitted in New York Magazine that he does not know why Vladimir Putin would want to steal a plane full of people and that his idea is somewhat ‘crazy’.
His theory was quickly slapped down. Fuad Sharuji, former crisis director for Malaysia Airlines, said: ‘Anyone who gets into the hatch can disable the transponder and disable the communications systems.
‘But it is impossible to fly the aircraft from the avionics compartment.’
Wise’s colleagues were also quick to rubbish the idea, and his theory ultimately led to him being removed from the Independent Group.
Aviation disaster experts analysed satellite data and discovered – like the data recorded by Inmarsat – that the plane flew on for hours after losing contact.
Careful examination of the evidence has revealed that MH370 made three turns after the last radio call, first a turn to the left, then two more, taking the plane west, then south towards Antarctica.
‘[The group is] absolutely certain that the plane turned south and not north.It was surprising that Jeff decided to take off on this route,’ Mike Exner said of the same Independent Group said, debunking his former colleague’s theory.
In addition to Russia, some have also accused North Korea of hijacking the aircraft as was done in 1969 when Korean Air Lines YS-11 was taken to North Korea.Of the 49 people on board, just 39 were returned two months later.
The crew and seven passengers were kept in North Korea.
THEORY: MH17 WAS ACTUALLY MH370
Because MH17 was also a Boeing 777 operated by the same airline, some conspiracy theorists have suggested the plane that crashed in Ukraine was actually MH370.
As an extension to the Russian theory, conspiracists have claimed photographs from the Ukrainian crash site show structural similarities to MH370.
While two disasters involving Malaysia Airlines planes certainly raised eyebrows, there has been no connection drawn between the two.Rather, it has been put down to a tragic coincidence that they happened so close together.
THEORY: MH370 USED BY TERRORISTS FOR AN ATTACK ON THE CHINESE NAVY
Another extraordinary claim came from 41-year-old British yachtsman Katherine Tee, from Liverpool, whose initial account of seeing what she thought was a burning plane in the night sky made headlines around the world.
On arrival in Thailand’s Phuket after sailing across the Indian Ocean from Cochin, southern India with her husband, she said: ‘I could see the outline of the plane – it looked longer than planes usually do.
‘There was what appeared to be black smoke streaming from behind.’
Ms Tee’s general description of the time and place was vague and she lost all credibility when she later stated on her blog that she believed MH370 was a kamikaze plane that was aimed at a flotilla of Chinese ships.
She said it was shot down before it could smash into the vessels.
Pictured: Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 take part in a prayer service at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing, China (file photo)
Without solid proof of the satellite data, she wrote on her blog, Saucy Sailoress, the plane she saw was flying at low altitude towards the military convoy she and her husband had seen on recent nights.
She added that internet research showed a Chinese flotilla was in the area.
In the early days of MH370’s disappearance, others also suggested it was hijacked.
Between 9 and 14 March, Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch tweeted that the vanished plane ‘confirms jihadists turning to make trouble for China’.
He later said the plane could have been hidden in Pakistan ‘like Bin Laden’.
THEORY: MH370 LANDED ON WATER AND WAS SEEN FLOATING IN THE SEA
On a flight from Jeddah to Kuala Lumpur that crossed over the Andaman Sea on March 8, Malaysian woman Raja Dalelah, 53, saw what she believed was a plane sitting on the water’s surface.
She didn’t know about the search that had been started for MH370.She alerted a stewardess who told her to go back to sleep. ‘I was shocked to see what looked like the tail and wing of an aircraft on the water,’ she said.
It was only when she told her friends on landing in Kuala Lumpur what she had seen that she learned of the missing jet.
The mother of 10 had seen the object at about 2.30pm Malaysian time.
She said she had been able to identify several ships and islands before noticing the silver object that she said was a plane.
Landing a plane on water was achieved by US airline captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger who heroically landed an Airbus on New York’s Hudson river in 2009 (pictured)
But her story was laughed off by pilots who said it would have been impossible to have seen part of an aircraft in the water from 35,000ft or seven miles.
Ms Raja filed an official report with police the same day and has kept to her story – five days before search and rescue teams scoured the same area.
‘I know what I saw,’ she said at the time.
Should an airliner be forced to make an emergency water landing, pilots are trained to keep landing gear retracted for a controlled, low-speed impact.
On a rare occasion, planes can survive such a landing on water if they are brought down well, at the right speed and angle.
This was achieved by US airline captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger who heroically landed an Airbus on New York’s Hudson river in 2009.
In that case, passengers and staff evacuated the plane on to inflatable rafts.There has been no evidence to suggest people evacuated MH370.
THEORY: THE AIRCRAFT SUFFERED A CATASTROPHIC SYSTEMS FAILURE
Some have suggested a catastrophic event, such as a fire, disabled much of the equipment, resulting in the pilots turning the plane back towards the Malaysian peninsula in the hope of landing at the nearest airport.
Satellite data, believable or not, suggests the aircraft did make a turn and theorists say there would be no reason for the pilots to change course unless confronted with such an emergency.
A fire in a similar Boeing 777 jet parked at Cairo airport in 2011 was found to have been caused by a problem with the first officer’s oxygen mask supply tubing.
Stewarts Law, which has litigated in a series of air disasters, believes the plane crashed after a fire – similar to the blaze on the Cairo airport runway – broke out in the cockpit.