Ronan's Spooky Mysteries: MH 370

AKA the one you've heard of before.

Malaysian Airlines flight 370 vanished on the 8th of March, 2014, en route to Beijing. Its disappearance triggered the largest search operation in aviation history. To date, only scattered fragments of the craft have been found, washed up on shores thousands of miles from its projected final location. The crash site has not been located, and now that the search has been called off, it's likely that it never will be.

The actual events leading up to the disappearance of MH 370 aren't particularly noteworthy (although as we'll see, there are a few Certified-Spooky™ details). The reason the case captured public attention is because it flies in the face of our perception of how the modern world works. The era of something the size of a passenger jet vanishing without a trace is supposed to be long over, ended by the advent of GPS satellites and wireless transponders. But MH 370 reminds us that the world is a big, big place, and even something as mighty and impressive as an airplane is really only an insignificant dot compared to the breadth and depth of the Pacific ocean.

Naturally, this has also led to a cloud of conspiracy theories of varying degrees of implausibility. Rather than focus on those (although if you want to, it's possible to truly go down the rabbit hole with this one), let's take a look at some of the more plausible scenarios for what could have happened to the flight.

One of the more popular theories is that the plane's captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, deliberately crashed it in an act of mass murder-suicide; this has unfortunately happened multiple times before, so the idea isn't far fetched. There's some circumstantial evidence to back the theory up, like the plane seemingly going off-course to swing by the island Shah lived on before heading out to the middle of the Indian ocean and details about his personal life that may have precipitated such a desperate act, but nothing truly concrete.

New York magazine got an intriguing scoop last year that many took as a smoking gun of Shah's guilt: a reconstructed flight path from his personal flight simulator that bears an uncanny similarity to MH 370's final flight, even including the odd north-west diversion toward his home island that the plane took on the night it vanished. But this might not be as telling as it appears. Shah is known to have made a lot of runs on the simulator; since we don't have precise details of the other simulated flight paths, it's entirely possible he ran dozens of flights over the Indian ocean just for the lulz, and whoever gave the magazine the information simply cherry-picked the one that most closely resembled MH 370's flight path. The actual investigators in the case also declared that nothing unusual was found in the simulator logs, which would seem to indicate that this route isn't as sinister in context as it seems.

Personally, the plane's odd behaviour during its final flight make me think more of a malfunction or crew incapacitation scenario than a pilot hijacking. If you were going to deliberately crash the plane, why not just do it shortly after take-off rather than leaving it to drift for hours over the ocean before running out of fuel? People have suggested that Shah didn't want the wreckage found, but if you're at the stage where taking hundreds of people down with you seems like a good idea, I'm not sure you'd be overly concerned with hiding the evidence afterwards.

Another plane actually managed to get in contact with MH 370 shortly after air traffic controllers realized something was wrong, but the captain reported only getting static and "mumbling sounds" in response. One of the suggested culprits for the disappearance is that the crew may have been rendered unconscious by a lack of pressure or oxygen for some reason, which would explain both this and the strange zig-zagging path the plane took before (apparently) heading off into the ocean in a straight line: perhaps Shah and his co-pilot were slowly being incapacitated in some way, tried to turn around and make an emergency landing, then either fell unconscious or died, leaving the plane to drift until it ran out of fuel. The image of a 777 full of unconscious people flying through the night is certainly eerie.

An intriguing story ran on the Daily Telegraph website three days after the disappearance, about a British woman who claimed to see a plane on fire in the approximate area that MH370 was thought to have flown through. Take it away:

I saw something that looked like a plane on fire,” she said. “Then I thought I must be mad. It caught my attention because I had never seen a plane with orange lights before so I wondered what they were… It looked longer than planes usually do. There was what appeared to be black smoke behind it."

“Since that’s not something you see every day, I questioned my mind. I was looking at what appeared to be an elongated plane glowing bright orange, with a trail of black smoke behind it. It did occur to me that it might be a meteorite . But I thought it was more likely that I was going insane.”

“There were two other planes well above it — moving the other way — at the time. They had normal navigation lights. I remember thinking that if it was a plane on fire that I was seeing, the other aircraft would report it.”

So, okay, that's not really very convincing, especially since it's the kind of story you could easily make up and no one would be able to prove you were lying (although the bit about the plane being "elongated" is the kind of weird detail that you wouldn't necessarily put into a total fabrication, which makes me think this woman did see something, even if it wasn't MH370). But it's a good example of how the case has taken on bone fida urban legend status.

Ultimately, the mystery of MH370 will continue until the wreckage is found--and with the GDP-smashing search having ended at the beginning of this year, that might never happen. There's a lot of ocean out there.