In the early hours of March 8, 2014, pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah sent Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 into air just before 12:45 a.m. local time.
Everything was routine onboard the Boeing 777 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, China, as the plane readied to leave Malaysian airspace and fly towards Vietnam across the South China Sea.
“Good night, Malaysian 370,” Shah tells air traffic controllers as they ready to relay communications duties to the Vietnamese.
Those were the final words ever heard from the 239 people onboard flight MH370, which mysteriously lost all radar contact a mere minute and a half later.
The flight had vanished without a trace and to this day, what actually happened in the air remains one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history.
A new Netflix docuseries, “MH370: The Plane That Disappeared,” examines several theories as to what happened that night.
The flight had about seven hours of fuel, Fuad Sharuji, former crisis director for Malaysia Airlines, says in archived footage.
Although MH370 had lost all radar communications, the plane was still electronically speaking to a satellite run by a British company called Inmarsat.
“Every hour, the Inmarsat system was checking that the satellite terminal on the aircraft was responding … these pings continued for up to six hours after last contact,” Inmarsat representative Mark Dickinson says in the docuseries.
But the Inmarsat data could only confirm that the flight was still in the air as it did not possess GPS-tracking capabilities. Still, it was able to determine how far away the aircraft was from the satellite with which it had been communicating.
Based on this information, two speculative routes have been drafted showing how and where the plane diverted off course. In both scenarios, MH370 did not continue towards mainland Vietnam, but instead veered westbound back over Malaysia. From there, it is projected that the flight either went north over central Asia — or down towards the South Indian Ocean by Australia.
The latter route is the likeliest scenario, widely agreed upon by experts. But what actually happened in the air is still in dispute. Had Shah gone rogue? Or was another state responsible for the flight’s unknown fate? A final commission report on MH370 noted “the team is unable to determine the real cause for the disappearance.”
The most incriminating piece of evidence to the theory that Shah, a veteran pilot, intended to commit a mass-murder suicide by putting the plane down into the Indian Ocean was found on a flight simulator he had inside his home, which made headlines in 2016.
It was there that Shah had reportedly flown a simulation similar to the airplane’s suspected, off-charted final course over the ocean a mere month before MH370 was airborne.
But the home simulator data is not be quite the “smoking gun” it seems, says Mike Exner of the Independent Group, a watchdog panel of aviation experts established to get the truth on the flight’s final hours.
“It’s very odd you would have a simulation end with fuel exhaustion in the Southern Indian Ocean,” Exner admits. “I don’t think taking the simulator data by itself proves a whole lot … The simulator data is not the whole puzzle, it’s just one piece in the puzzle that fits.”
Jeff Wise, an aviation journalist whose theories on the flight became controversial among experts, claims that the FBI had known of the route in the flight simulator back in 2014.
Wise says that the practicality of Shah single-handedly taking the plane would require an “aggressive and sophisticated” plot, involving locking his co-pilot out of the cockpit, killing radar communications and depressurizing the cabin to prevent interference.
Meanwhile, a potential motive remains unclear.
The final report on MH370 found that “there is no evidence to suggest any recent behavioral changes for the [pilot].”
Wise, a former member of the Independent Group, has another working theory on the whereabouts of MH370 — but it sounds closer to the plot of a James Bond movie than anything else.
A few months after the flight was lost, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, another 777, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the Ukraine at the same time Russia was invading nearby Crimea.
Checking flight logs, Wise observed that there were three Russian passengers on board MH370 — all of whom were seated near an electrical hatch. He theorized that two of the three created a diversion while the other member snuck below deck to remotely control the plane’s flight.
Instead of it being sent south, Wise theorizes it was brought to the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan.
But that theory was quickly grounded.
“Anyone who gets into the hatch can disable the transponder and disable the communications systems,” Sharuji says. “But it is impossible to fly the aircraft from the avionics compartment.”
Colleagues of Wise also were quick to debunk the idea.
“[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,” says Exner.
Wise’s conjectures ended with his removal from the Independent Group.
Another wild theory is that the American military, which was doing training exercises at the time in the South China Sea, had downed MH370 at the point where it had first lost radar contact in between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace.
French journalist Florence de Changy has observed that the cargo carried — and delivered “under escort” — by MH370 included 2.5 tons of electronic devices without being scanned prior to loading.
“It’s public knowledge that China was very eager to acquire highly sensitive US technology in the field of surveillance, stealth, drone technology,” de Changy says. “This could be at the heart of what happened to MH370.”
The United States had two radar jamming planes suited with an Airborne Warning & Control System (AWAC) in the vicinity the night MH370 took off. De Changy theorizes that they were used to knock the plane electronically off radar and instructed Shah to land.
When he decided to keep the flight on course, she claims that “either through a missile strike or a midair collision, MH370 met its fate.”
But, like Wise, de Changy has no proof for her theory — and it’s not backed by the Inmarsat data projections, either. Exner is also critical that she is also using the inflammatory thesis to promote her 2021 book, “The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370.”
“I’m just reluctant to talk about Florence or Jeff or these conspiracy advocates,” Exner, who believes the most logical conclusion does not read like a Tom Clancy novel and lies within the Indian Ocean.
“They’re just such a distraction … These are people that don’t really understand the facts and the data.”