A Complete Timeline of the Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

On Saturday, March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 lost contact with ground control and disappeared from radar. The Boeing 777, and its 239 passengers and crew, have not been seen since.

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At 12:40 a.m. local time in Saturday, March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 left Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing. Roughly one hour after takeoff, the aircraft lost contact with ground control and then disappeared from radar. The Boeing 777, and its 239 passengers and crew, have not been seen since.

Fourteen days later, that is still essentially all we know about what happened to MH370. More than two dozen countries have joined in the search for the missing aircraft, not to mention the countless amauter investigtors online, and despite the massive region-wide search, spanning across oceans and continents, with watchers on land, sea, air, and even space, there is no trace of the missing aircraft or any answer to the cause of its disappearance. 

Many are calling the loss of MH370 one of the greatest aviation mysteries ever. Some say it is even more difficult than the hunt for an Air France flight that disappeared en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009, the closest thing we have to a precedent for this case. It took nearly two years to find the remains of that flight. Unfortunately, the past two weeks give us little reason to believe that the search for MH370 will end any easier.

Since March 8 (or March 7 in the United States), a number of theories have been offered and dismissed as to what possibly could have led the plane to disappear. Some have been contested; others accepted, then summarily debunked; and still more remain open questions for the increasingly frustrated investigators to solve. With so many false reports, bad leads, and contradictory evidence, a full revisiting of the timeline of the last two weeks might help sort out what we know, what we thought we knew, and what everyone hopes will not be their worst fears coming true.

The First Hours

On the day the flight disappeared, Malaysian officials offered very little information beyond the fact that there was no distress call from the plane, or any other reason to suspect that something had gone awry. Aside from the fact that the plane had disappeared off the airline’s radar.

At the time, data from the radar showed that MH370 was last detected at the normal cruising height of 35,000 feet, and so the search would begin near its last known location in the South China Sea. According to a Vietnamese official, the plane was last seen on radar about 140 miles southwest of Vietnam's southernmost province. At first, officials said they’d lost contact two hours after the plane took off, but soon revised that figure to less than an hour.

The oil slick

Within 24 hours of the plane’s disappearance, Vietnamese officials reported that they spotted an oil slick on the water in the general vicinity of where the plane was last spotted. According to the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam’s Director Lai Xuan Tanh:

An AN26 aircraft of the Vietnam Navy has discovered an oil slick about 20 kilometers in the search area, which is suspected of being a crashed Boeing aircraft -- we have announced that information to Singapore and Malaysia and we continue the search.

The assumption of most investigators at that point, was that MH370 went down soon after losing contact with ground control, leaking fuel as it crashed into the water, though they still had no guesses as to what caused the malfunction.

In less than a day, however, that theory was dismissed, when lab results showed that the fuel causing the oil slick actually came from a ship, and could not have left there by a plane.

The stolen passports  

About 48 hours after the plane disappeared, officials revealed that two of the passengers on Flight 370 used stolen EU passports to board the flight. Speculation immediately turned to thoughts of terrorism. Some experts said that it was not unheard of for passengers to board flights with false identification — airport security often fails to check IDs against Interpol’s database of stolen passports, as was the case in Kuala Lumpur. 

That concern only increased when it was learned that both men, who were indeed traveling together, were Iranian nationals. However, further investigation over the next severals found that officials were not able to link either man to terrorist groups. It was ultimately concluded that based on their history and travel itinerary, they were more than likely immigrants seeking asylum, and had purchased the passports as way to reach Europe safely.

The turn-around

On March 11, four days after the disappearance, Malaysian officials first revealed to a local paper that they had radar evidence suggesting the plane had turned around mid-flight, heading back towards the busy Malacca Strait. This marked the first major departure from the catastrophic crash scenario. The Malacca Strait, located on Malaysia’s west coast is hundreds of miles away from the initial search zone, and there were indiciations that the plane had quickly dropped by 1,000 feet when it was spotted, at 2:40, by military radar. This was the first mention of military radar data on the missing plane, and the first evidence that it had no simply vanished forever.

The information was later partially retracted by the official, who denied making the statement, but did not contradict the story. Other officials stood by the development and this week, Thai officials said their radar essentially confirmed that path. The news makes catastrophic plane failure, which presumably would have caused the pilots to lose control of the plane soon after losing contact with ground control, seem unlikely.

Chinese satellite images

On the Wednesday following the disappearance, China released satellite images of three large pieces of debris floating in the South China Sea, that they thought may have been a part of the missing plane. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time:

The Chinese military agency described the site as "a suspected crash area," based on its location along the jet's flight path and the size of three, light-colored debris pieces spotted on the water's surface, the largest estimated to measure more than 70 feet in length and width. The Chinese agency gave coordinates of 105.63 east longitude, 6.7 north latitude, in the South China Sea between the Malaysian peninsula and Vietnam.

The images were released around the same time that investigators began to widen their search parameters. However, after nearly a week of misdirections, officials were at least somewhat prepared to find that this was yet another false lead.

China said later that the release of the images was a mistake.

The eyewitness

Also that Wednesday,  a letter appeared on social media, originally written by a worker aboard an oil rig in the South China Sea and send his bosses. The man said he believed he may have witnessed a plane plunging toward the water while on fire, and according to the time and location he believed it to have been MH370. If true, his story (along with the then promising Chinese satellite images), would have turned the investigation back toward the South China Sea. Once the satellite images proved unhelpful, however, the account largely dismissed as a false ID.

Flying the wrong way

From that point forward, investigators began to settle on the idea that plane, for reason that remain unclear, definitely changed direction, mostly likely intentionally. The first reports, given U.S. officials to the Wall Street Journal claimed that the plane continued to fly normally for several hours after it was last spotted on civilian radar screens, but in an unknown direction. This was coupled with a theory, floated to Reuters by, again, unnamed officials, that the movement of the plane revealed an intentional off-course flight. The anonymous sources explained, respectively, that the plane was unintentionally pinging satellite data that revealed its location for at least four hours after losing contact with ground control, even though transponders and all cockpit communications had ceased. The new flight path followed programmed waystations; or geographical markers identifiable only to experienced pilots.

This all meant that, as of last week, MH370’s flight path most likely looks something like this:

Soon after, officials told the New York Times that not only had the plane shifted directions drastically after its’ data transmitter was switched off, but that it had also drastically changed altitudes — first reaching 45,000 feet and then dropping to about 23,000. The rapid shift in altitude could have knocked passengers unconscious, intentionally, or not making them unable to fight (or help) against a hostile crew or hijackers.

Now, officials are primarily considering two possible flight paths for the plane based on the new information, per the Guardian. The renewed paths take into consideration data collected from radar screens, the amount of fuel remaining in the plane's tank, and the possibility that the plane flew for as much six hours following the last official message received. 

The pilots

As the investigation moved into the second phase, people began to look to the crew for answers. On Tuesday, reports emerged that someone in the cockpit programmed the new, erratic flight path into the plane's Flight Management System at least 12 minutes before signing off. Officials also raided the home of the plane's captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and found that some information had been deleted from the home-made flight simulator before he left for his fateful flight. However, neither of these reports indicate foul play. It's not unusual for pilots to reprogram the flight path to avoid air traffic or weather conditions, just as it's not unusual for pilots to hone their skills on flight simulators when not on duty.

Desperate to find any kind of motive, Shah's politics even came into question, as it was learned that he was a supporter of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's primary opposition leader, who has been accused (falsely) of corruption and trying to violently overthrow the government.

At this point, many still believe that pilot suicide or hijack is the most likely scenario. Yet, there's no other evidence that either pilot had a motive or inclination to to undertake such a drastic move.

Deep water

The last several days of the search have been mostly uneventful, aside from one potentially significant development, that has ultimately proved fruitless. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced early on Thursday that two objects that could be debris from flight MH370 were discovered 1,500 miles southwest of Perth. 

Even if they were part of the plane, the location of the debris is so remote; the time elapsed before ships could reach it was so great; and the water in that area is so deep, the odd recovering anything in that area are remarkably low. More than 24 hours later, there remains no sign of the plane.

Amateur analyses

With no wreckage, no witnesses, no signal, and no evidence, all anyone can seem to do is guess about what could have happened to Flight 730. As the world's best investigators continue to grasp at straws, some amateur sleuths have offered up their own interpretations of what might have happened. Some of them seem to be hitting a nerve with a public desperate for answers, or at least a plausible explanation of what could have happened. 

Attempted emergency landing 

Pilot Chris Goodfellow postulated that the pilots of MH370 were probably attempting an emergency landing at Malaysian airport after a fire broke out in the cockpit. He wrote in an essay posted on his Google Plus account that "the left turn is key here," adding that the plane's experienced pilot was reacting to the crisis by veering towards the Palau Langkawi airport, which is equipped with a 13,000-foot landing strip — enough to accommodate the Boeing. He also argued that fire would explain the lack of communication.  Goodfellow continued:

It was probably a serious event and they simply were occupied with controlling the plane and trying to fight the fire. Aviate, Navigate and lastly communicate... What I think happened is that they were overcome by smoke and the plane just continued on  the heading probably on George (autopilot) until either fuel exhaustion or fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed.  

He added that the pilot "was a hero struggling with an impossible situation," adding that "a hijack would not have made that deliberate left turn with a direct heading for Langkawi." The theory was embraced by media outlets (several of whom republished it) and readers, who found the explanation straightforward and convincing, especially as investigators fail to find any blemishes on the records of the pilot or co-pilot. But as Slate's Jeff Wise points out, the theory is hampered by the fact that the plane didn't continue flying in a straight line after making that initial turn. According to Wise:

While it’s true that MH370 did turn toward Langkawi and wound up overflying it, whoever was at the controls continued to maneuver after that point as well, turning sharply right at VAMPI waypoint, then left again at GIVAL. Such vigorous navigating would have been impossible for unconscious men.

Even with an on-board fire, it still seems unlikely that there would be zero communication from the pilots or anyone on board attempting to call home.

A shadow plane

Keith Ledgerman, a self-described aviation enthusiast, offered another theory that has piqued the interest of readers online, even thought it sounds ridiculous on its face. According to Ledgerman, the missing plane avoided radar by flying in the shadow of Singapore Airlines Flight 68, which was giving off normal signals throughout its flight. By doing so, he argues, the plane would have successfully avoided the radar of countries like India and Pakistan, who have said there's no way the plane could have landed on their territory undetected. In Ledgerman's words, "it is my belief that MH370 likely flew in the shadow of SIA68 through India and Afghanistan airspace."

He adds that SIA38 wouldn't have picked up signals from MH370 because the planes' transponder was turned off by the time it started following the Singapore Airlines flight. Ledgerman concluded that MH370 eventually landed somewhere north of India or Afghanistan: 

Once MH370 had cleared the volatile airspaces and was safe from being detected by military radar sites in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan it would have been free to break off from the shadow of SIA68 and could have then flown a path to its final landing site.  There are several locations along the flight path of SIA68 where it could have easily broken contact and flown and landed in Xingjian province, Kyrgyzstan, or Turkmenistan. Each of these final locations would match up almost perfectly with the 7.5 hours of total flight time and trailing SIA68.

Though the theory is enticing, The Atlantic's James Fallows (who, it should be noted, was cautiously interested in Goodfellow's idea) countered that the idea is neither likely nor plausible:

Apart from the general rococo-ness of the plotting, this interpretation rests on a piece of evidence that I view in a very different way from what's implied in the post. Keith Ledgerwood notes that the two planes followed exactly the same course across a series of aerial way points ("intersections" with 5-letter names like IGREX and VAMPI) at very close to the same time. Isn't this suggestive of something strange? Actually, not. On many heavily traveled air corridors, planes will be sent along exactly the same sequence of way points at intervals of a few minutes.

If the pilot did shadow SIA38 as Ledgerwood suggested, according to an expert who spoke to the New Strait Times, he would have pulled off a near-impossible feat. "You need to know the aircraft routes, the type of aircraft and what speed the aircraft is flying on that day, which can be affected by weather, change of flight plan or technical aspect,” said the expert, adding that "For MH370 to go under the military radar, the aircraft would have to be flying directly beneath SQ68. It has to be precision flying so that military radar can’t pick it up." All of which is unlikely.

Black hole 

On Wednesday, CNN's Don Lemon said on-air that some viewers had wondered if the plane could have been swallowed up by a black hole. He asked the former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo to address the concern, saying: "I know it's preposterous, but is it preposterous?" Schiavo, rather generously, said this was impossible, but added "I think it's wonderful that the whole world is trying to help with their theories."

Astrophysicists questioned by The Wire confirmed that this is indeed a preposterous theory. Columbia University astronomy professor David J. Helfand said "black holes comparable to the mass of an airplane or somewhat bigger that could attract and swallow a plane do not exist," and Stanford University physics professor Peter Michelson added that if the plane had been swallowed up by a black hole, "a lot of other things would be missing as well," like "probably the Earth." So we can safely put that theory to rest.

Lingering Questions

So far, none of the explanations have offered a comprehensive answer to where the plane is, or what caused it to disappear. Some wonder why passengers didn't attempt to call friends or family at any time. Others question the Malaysian government's hesitance to reveal information or why has it taken so long for certain pieces of the puzzle to come to light? Chinese citizens, who made the majority of the passengers have lost patience with the lack of information and answers. Some see fault in other governments and their level of cooperation, wondering why Thailand waited a week before revealing their own data on the flight. Many have questioned why it's even possible to turn off a plane's data transmitter and if a full re-thinking of airline safety is in order

But of course, the prevailing question remains, how can an airplane in this day and fly so completely off the grid and why can't we figure out where it is? Unfortunately, no answers are forthcoming. So we continue to watch and wait.

Update 3/24: Over the weekend, China and France joined Australia in reporting that they had satellite images of objects that could be related to the plane. On Saturday, China said that the images showed "suspicious" objects along the plane's possible southern path. Later, Malaysian officials added that France also had satellite images suggestive of debris. 

On Saturday, Australia said that one of its missions had spotted what looked like a wooden pallet and strapping belts, possible debris from the plane. But by Sunday the investigators had lost sight of the object, concluding, in the words of Australia's transport minister, yet another "fruitless day" with no news.

Early Monday, both China and Australia announced that they had seen, again, items floating in the Indian Ocean that could possibly, again, be related to MH370.

By later Monday, however, all earlier news of floating objects and satellite images was forgotten when the Malaysian Prime Minister issued a harrowing announcement: new analysis shows that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 crashed into the Indian Ocean.

In his statement, PM Najib Razak explained that the conclusion was reached based on new analysis from the UK :

This evening I was briefed by representatives from the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB). They informed me that Immarsat, the UK company that provided the satellite data which indicated the northern and southern corridors, has been performing further calculations on the data. Using a type of analysis never before used in an investigation of this sort, they have been able to shed more light on MH370's flight path. Based on their new analysis, Inmarsat and AAIB have concluded that MH370 flew along the southern corridor, and that its last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth. This is a remote location far from possible landing sites. It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean. 

The Malaysian government informed the families of the news before the official announcement, reaching some via text message.

No further information has been given with regard to the floating objects, although another press conference is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. local time. Najib said that more details will revealed at that time.

Click here to see all The Wire's previous coverage of MH370.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.