Can Malaysia's new search for MH370 solve a decade-old mystery?

Ten years after the Malaysian Airlines flight went missing, families deserve closure and we need to know the truth

An aircraft searches for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 near the coast of Western Australia in March 2014. AP
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Ten years ago, in the early hours of March 8, Malaysian Airlines flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur destined for Beijing. At 1.19am, Malaysian air traffic control contacted Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah as the plane was about to enter Vietnamese air space. Mr Zaharie answered: “Good night. Malaysian three-seven-zero” – and it was the last that anyone heard from MH370.

It disappeared off the radar over the South China Sea, which was why that was the initial search area. The Royal Malaysian Air Force then swiftly confirmed that their own radar recordings indicated that the plane had turned back, across the country’s peninsula, and that an unidentified aircraft, which could well have been MH370, was last located at 2.15am about 320 kilometres north-west of the island of Penang in the Andaman Sea.

It has been an agonising decade for the families of the 227 passengers, two pilots and 10 crew, because despite extensive searches, which went on until June 2018, what happened to MH370 remains one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history. We still don’t know why the plane changed course, why all communication stopped, or where it ended up. I remember it being said of the search, much of which was conducted over vast stretches of the southern Indian Ocean: “It’s not like trying to find a needle in a haystack, because we don’t even know where the haystack is.”

There were signs on the way. The discovery in July 2015 of a flaperon, later confirmed to be from MH370, on the shores of Reunion Island, suggested that the areas of the Indian Ocean that were being combed by underwater search vehicles were where the plane’s final resting place might be. It was never found, but Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke has just announced that he had a “credible” new proposal from Ocean Infinity, the American exploration firm that had made the last search from January to June 2018.

We must only hope that a new search goes ahead and finally discovers the watery grave of the plane that left Kuala Lumpur 10 long years ago

His ministry was ready to discuss a no-find, no-fee proposal, he said. “We are waiting for Ocean Infinity to provide the suitable dates and I will meet them any time that they are ready to come to Malaysia.” A new mission would provide at least some hope for the relatives, and success would also be welcomed by the huge number of officials who were involved in the search operations.

Ships and aircraft from a total of 26 countries, including Malaysia, took part at various stages, but inevitably the focus was on Malaysia – and the country’s leaders faced a lot of anger. They were, not entirely fairly, accused of being incompetent and concealing information. There was the constant need to verify all the intelligence they received in what was a completely unprecedented situation for which no country could have been prepared, and if they had released statements that were later found to be incorrect, they would have been lambasted all the more.

I have met then-prime minister Najib Razak and then-defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein (the latter was also acting transport minister in the early part of the searches), and I have no doubt that both men sincerely did everything they could to find the plane. Najib suffered a family tragedy when a second Malaysian Airlines plane was stricken that same year: his step grandmother was on Flight MH17 when it was shot out of the skies above Ukraine in July 2014.

When an Indonesia AirAsia Airbus crashed into the Java Sea, resulting in the deaths of all 162 on board, that December, it felt to everyone living in Malaysia (as I was by then) as though the country was living through some collective nightmare: AirAsia is a Malaysian company, and it is just as famous as the national carrier. Could there really have been a third catastrophic event involving Malaysian aircraft in just 10 months?

Malaysia suggests new search for flight MH370 10 years after disappearance

Malaysia suggests new search for flight MH370 10 years after disappearance

There have been a stream of theories about what happened to MH370 over the years. Was it more than coincidence that Capt Zaharie had mapped a similar flight into the Indian Ocean on his personal flight simulator at his home? Some believed that the second Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down to distract from Russia’s takeover of Crimea.

Others are convinced that US forces were after MH370 because it was carrying technology in its cargo that America didn’t want to reach Beijing. In a Netflix documentary released a year ago, Ghyslain Wattrelos, whose wife, daughter and one of his two sons were on the flight, said he was told by a mysterious “Mr B” that “the Americans know full well what happened, because there were two American Awacs that were monitoring the area at the time the plane disappeared … They know where it crashed. They know where it is”.

Note that I refer to “theories” above, not “conspiracy theories”. I do so not because I have suddenly become credulous and open to crackpot conjecture, but because after all this time, the first question remains central: how, in an age of constant monitoring, of satellites, mobile signals and stealth technology, is it possible that a Boeing 777, the world’s largest twin-jet airliner, could simply vanish into thin air?

The truth of what happened to the Nord Stream gas pipelines between Russia and Europe in 2022, both rendered inoperable by explosions, has thus far proved elusive. Many, myself included, firmly believe that is because to reveal who did it would be politically embarrassing.

Could the same be the case with MH370? And if so, will we ever find out? For now, there can be no definitive answers. We must only hope for the sake of the relatives that a new search goes ahead and finally discovers the watery grave of the plane that left Kuala Lumpur 10 long years ago.

Published: March 06, 2024, 2:00 PM
Updated: March 20, 2024, 11:12 AM