Ever since MH370 vanished from radar and, sometime later, fell out of the sky, there’ve been arguments about what happened that day. Broadly speaking, these fall into two categories. One view is that the plane was deliberately piloted off course by Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, possibly as part of a suicide attempt. Another is that an accident incapacitated the crew and pilot at some point in the process, likely after the aircraft made its sharp turn left.
The debate over whether Shah was still alive when MH370 began its final descent is part of this larger argument — we’ve seen that argument play out both ways, with some claiming that debris analysis shows an uncontrolled descent into the ocean, while others claim that the evidence favors a controlled descent. The Australian version of 60 Minutes recently convened its own panel of experts, who turned up what they collectively believe are some telling clues that shine a new light on the events in question.
The Leftward Turn
Just after MH370 was supposed to be handed off from Malaysian air traffic controllers to Vietnamese airspace, Captain Shah took a sharp turn to the west. The aircraft’s new flight path took it across the airspace of Malaysia and Thailand, shifting between each country. The experts convened by 60 Minutes argue that this may have been a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the situation by traveling across both countries, rather than remaining in one nation’s airspace. But one puzzle to the situation is why the flight took the sharp left hook it did, before turning right again, then hooking left once more.
An investigation of Shah’s flight simulator settings, run from his home, suggests a potential answer. In the simulations Shah ran, he dipped his virtual aircraft’s wing to the left, giving him a panoramic view of Panang, Malaysia’s capital city — and his own hometown — from the air. The belief is that the passengers would have been unconscious already, thanks to the depressurization of the cabin, a move Shah is believed to have taken to prevent anyone onboard from interfering in his plans. And Shah plotted no endpoint for his simulation, raising the disturbing possibility that his simulation was a dry run for a murder-suicide plot.
There is no evidence Shah was attempting to kill people in a terrorist attack. While some have suggested this, and Shah was not known to have suffered from severe depression, one hallmark of terrorist attacks is that terrorist groups invariably claim responsibility for them. Shah is not known to have had any contact with such groups. Pilot-suicides, on the other hand, are not unknown. Germanwings Flight 9525 killed 150 people in 2015 in a suicide by pilot, as did LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 in 2013, EgyptAir Flight 990 in 1999, and SilkAir in 1997 (though this last is disputed). Regardless, there is no evidence of a malfunction — or any known types of malfunction — that would explain the aircraft’s flight plan deviations and eventual departure from radar tracking.
The 60 Minutes investigation discusses how we eventually defined an arc through which MH370 is expected to have traveled, and why the plane is believed to have moved south, into the southern Indian Ocean, as opposed to flying north into Kazakhstan. The debate over whether the aircraft was under control when it smashed into the water is still ongoing (reports that the episode settles this question aren’t accurate, as a parsing of its back-and-forth reveals). But when 60 Minutes asks why Captain Shah chose to fly into the most remote area on Earth, thousands of miles from land, the response from the empaneled experts is unequivocal: “To make it disappear.” So far, Shah has been successful.
The experts flew both the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s calculated “death dive,” in which it fell out of the sky in an uncontrolled manner, as well as a hypothetical fuel-maximized descent, in which Shah might have attempted to glide the plane into a controlled landing. The difference is critical. The “death dive” uncontrolled failure leaves the aircraft slamming into the ocean roughly 12 miles from where it first ran out of fuel. In this scenario, the journey back to Earth took nine minutes — and traveled nearly 100 nautical miles (115 miles). But this approach could have flung the aircraft far outside any search grid. And the question of whether Captain Shah was in control of the aircraft in its last moments remains unanswered, with the experts again divided. But the implication of the leftward turn over Panang, the wing dip, and the subsequent course change definitely implies that Shah took these actions deliberately. Why he did so may forever remain unanswered.
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