Two years after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 lost contact with air traffic control and disappeared, investigators are not much closer to finding the missing plane – prolonging what has become perhaps the most vexing mystery in modern aviation history.
The disappearance was commemorated in Malaysia with a moment of silence in the nation’s parliament and a progress report on the investigation, which revealed frustratingly few new details on the state of the search.
In an announcement, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said authorities "remain committed to doing everything within our means to solving what is an agonizing mystery."
The flight vanished with 239 people on board after the first hour of what was to be a six-hour journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014. It lost contact with ground control just as it crossed into Vietnamese airspace.
In the first days following the plane’s disappearance, theories of its fate abounded. The most common was some kind of terrorist hijacking plot, fueled by the fact that the plane’s communications system seemed to have been deliberately switched off and two passengers aboard the flight had boarded with falsified passports.
That speculative furor has since faded. Investigators believe the flight most likely crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean, though after two years of intense searching, only one real bit of evidence has surfaced: a wing flap that washed up on the shores of Reunion Island, near Madagascar.
But misinformation early on – such as the false claim that the plane climbed to an altitude of 45,000 feet, impossible for a fully loaded Boeing 777 – sowed understandable doubt that investigators were looking in the right place.
The current search area: the southern Indian Ocean
Investigators settled on the current search area – about 46,000 square miles, or roughly the size of Pennsylvania – based on a very limited and imperfect set of data points.
After the plane lost primary contact with air traffic control, satellites were able to send hourly messages to the plane, which it automatically responded to while it was still logged on. Those connections are known as "handshakes," and MH370 made seven of them after losing contact with the ground.
But the satellites can’t tell us where, exactly, those handshakes were coming from – they can only determine how far off course the plane had gone from its intended route, based on how much longer each handshake took to complete.
Based on that information, combined with data on weather patterns, the plane’s estimated velocity, and fuel burn, investigators came up with the southern Indian Ocean as the plane’s likeliest ending point after seven hours of flying, when they’re guessing it ran out of fuel.
Australia, which is leading the search effort, has already combed about 70 percent of the specified search area, a task that’s cost it $130 million.
Debris points to the fact that the plane probably crashed in the Indian Ocean
In August, investigators confirmed that the wing flap found on a beach in Reunion did indeed come from the missing Flight 370.
But because it was found so long after the plane went down – the wing likely spent more than 500 days bobbing around on the ocean’s surface – it didn’t provide any useful clues about the rest of the plane’s whereabouts. (Reunion is about 2,300 miles away from the main search area.) So the only thing the discovered wing flap tells us with near certainty is that the plane crashed into the water.
In early March, what looked like the tail of a plane turned up on the shores of Mozambique. If the plane part did indeed come from the Malaysian aircraft, it would add credence to the theory that the plane went down specifically in the southern Indian Ocean.
Just days later, the same man who found the wing fragment in Reunion discovered a second piece of debris, in nearly the same spot on the beach where the first fragment had turned up. This latest find is so recent that it hasn’t yet been confirmed as an airplane fragment, let alone one belonging to MH370.
An alternate theory points to a separate, smaller search area
About 10 days after the flight disappeared, a Canadian pilot named Chris Goodfellow published a startlingly simple and complete theory about the plane’s disappearance. He argued that the crew "was confronted by some major event onboard," like an electrical fire that shut off communications systems and eventually filled the cockpit with smoke, incapacitating the crew.
What was so interesting about Goodfellow’s theory was that he had a simple explanation for the plane’s mysterious turn back: The pilot, confronted by a fire on board, was simply turning back to the nearest landing strip. When smoke overcame him, the plane kept flying in that direction until it ran out of fuel and crashed, 500 miles south of where investigators are now looking.
The theory became hugely popular, because it was the rare explanation that didn’t rely on criminal machinations or terrorist plots. And a group of believers, led by Goodfellow, are on a mission to put the theory to the test.
The group, which has styled itself VeritasMH370, hopes to find a way to shift the search area to where they believe it should be. And if authorities don’t believe them, they want to crowdfund a $5 million search expedition themselves.
Their theory is not perfect. Most aviation experts believe a fire aboard a plane would bring down the aircraft immediately, and at least one is skeptical the jet could have reached Goodfellow’s proposed search area given its fuel reserves.
But Goodfellow has some more evidence on his side. Satellite images taken in the couple of weeks after the plane disappeared show debris in the area he’s proposing to search.
Still, it’s unlikely that the official search will change course to account for Goodfellow’s theory – too many resources have already been poured into the current investigation taking place. And without significant institutional support, Goodfellow and his team are not very likely to find the plane on their own.