The Mystery of Flight 370: A Skeptic’s Perspective

On March 8, 2014, a Malaysian airline’s Boeing 777 passenger aircraft suddenly disappeared from air traffic radar screens while on a midnight flight outbound from Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members and was bound for Beijing, China when it seemingly vanished into thin air. The last radio contact air traffic controllers made with the aircraft was 40 minutes into the flight.

This tragedy has left many questions and no answers for the thousands of grief stricken relatives, loved ones and associates of the 239 missing people who are in all likelihood dead. Very rarely does a Boeing 777 airplane practically fall off the map. Where is the wreckage? Why did all signals from the plane suddenly cease altogether? Why has no one been able to pinpoint the position of the plane based on the last information given to air traffic controllers? The people working around the clock to answer these questions are still grasping at straws. In the last few weeks, their only recourse has been to widen the search area to include a much larger stretch of ocean. Increased search activity has focused on the area of the Indian Ocean southwest of Western Australia, ever since possible aircraft debris was detected via satellites. None of the debris objects found in that area have been confirmed as belonging to MH370, and the mystery of what happened to the aircraft and how it could possibly have ended up near Australia still remains.

Following is an overview of some of the more prominent theories that have been offered to explain MH370’s enigmatic disappearance. My list is not an exhaustive one and is intended to give an idea of how great a mystery this is turning out to be.

Mid-Air Explosion

In what is currently historicized as the third-deadliest aviation disaster in the United States, a fuel tank malfunction caused Trans World Airlines Flight 800 to explode in midair on July 17, 1996 while flying across the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people on board. Some have suggested that MH370 may have met with a similar fate and that the plane is in pieces somewhere in the ocean.

This possibility cannot be entirely ruled out by our intuitive sense that if the plane exploded, the pieces should have been visible floating on the ocean surface. After all, how long would the debris float? No one involved in the search effort knows exactly where the plane was over the ocean when it disappeared from radar. And although the particular stretch of ocean traversed by the plane’s flight path is not very deep (a mere 50 meters deep at most), the ocean is a vast place and search teams have a large expanse to cover. Every piece of the plane could have sunk by the time search teams arrived anywhere near the place where the plane was last believed to be located.

There are other more forceful reasons a mid-air explosion is unlikely to have downed MH370. Militating most strongly against the mid-air explosion scenario is the fact that an extensive review of spy satellite imagery by the United States have turned up no trace of such an explosion.

Pilot Suicide

MH370 was cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet at the time it vanished from radar screens 41 minutes into its flight. The last reading of the plane’s estimated route by military radar indicates that it had made an abrupt and unscheduled turn towards the west and then dropped in elevation.

This erratic change in course and elevation, along with the fact that MH370 did not send out any emergency signals, has led some U.S. officials to discuss pilot suicide as a possibility. This has precedent; according to data compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration, 24 pilots have committed suicide by intentionally crashing planes in the last two decades. Two cases of aircraft-assisted pilot suicide, one in 1997 and the other in 1999, involved large passenger planes.

The presence of a co-pilot thus does not preclude the possibility of suicidal pilots carrying out their death wish. In the case of the 1999 pilot suicide, which involved EgyptAir Flight 990 en route from Los Angeles International Airport to Cairo International Airport, the pilot struggled with co-pilot Gameel Al-Batouti. When Al-Batouti shut off the engine and brought the plane into a dive with the intention of crashing it, the pilot fought him on the way down. Unfortunately, the pilot was not able to regain control of the craft and the plane’s angle reached a point from which recovery was impossible. All 217 passengers on EgyptAir Flight 990 perished.

Is it possible that either one or both of the pilots of Malaysia Airline Flight 370 pulled of a suicide mission, orchestrating the act in such a way that the wreckage would be well hidden?

Terrorism

Interpol and Thai police have confirmed that two men boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with stolen Austrian and Italian passports and fake identities on their person. The proprietors of a travel agency in Kuala Lumpur’s resort town of Pattaya apparently sold one-way tickets to the two Iranian men, who apparently paid for the tickets with cash.

The assumption that terrorism was involved in the plane’s disappearance is a natural one to come by, especially when stolen passports and fake identities are part of the story. The predisposition to assume terrorist involvement in a case like this is strong enough already in the United States, where the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are still very much in the public consciousness. But positing terrorist activity to explain the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 overlooks the fact that terrorist acts are almost always intended to send a clear message. Individuals and groups who engage in terrorism usually want as many people as possible to know exactly what they have done.

Furthermore, irregularities like stolen passports and fake documents are not anomalous enough to justify suspicions of terrorism. Without a great deal more statistical information, we have no way of knowing how predictive such comparatively harmless illegal activity is of something as serious and harmful as terrorism. Suppose a thorough investigator were to conduct a series of careful reviews of all 200 or more passengers on randomly-assigned airplane flights over a given period of time. How often will things like stolen passports and falsified personal documents turn up in the investigator’s results? It is not inconceivable that there could be at least two people with stolen passports and/or fake IDs for every 300 people on any given airplane anywhere in the world.

Finally, security sources in the United States and Europe have reported that Malaysian authorities are not affording much weight to theories of terrorist involvement in the plane’s disappearance. A Reuters article dated March 10, 2014 reviews some of the reasons the terrorist theory is dubious:

Malaysian authorities have indicated that the evidence so far does not strongly back an attack as a cause for the aircraft’s disappearance, and that mechanical or pilot problems could have led to the apparent crash, the U.S. sources said.

“There is no evidence to suggest an act of terror,” said a European security source, who added that there was also “no explanation what’s happened to it or where it is.”

[The Malaysian authorities’] view was mostly based on electronic evidence that indicates the flight may have turned back toward the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur before disappearing.

The aircraft was equipped with a maintenance computer capable of talking to the ground automatically through short messages known as ACARS. “There were no signals from ACARS from the time the aircraft disappeared,” a source involved in the investigations said.

Also raising doubts about the possibility of an attack, the United States extensively reviewed imagery taken by spy satellites for evidence of a mid-air explosion, but saw none, a U.S. government source said. The source described U.S. satellite coverage of the region as thorough.

Because of the human brain’s strong inclination to draw conclusions for which no evidence is at hand, we would do well to constantly remind ourselves that any “answer” arrived at with no supporting evidence is no answer at all and that coming to conclusions drawn from the void of our own ignorance can have dangerous real-life consequences.

Conspiracy Theories, Aliens, and the Supernatural

Voids in knowledge are abhorrent to human nature, which is why a tendency exists among all of us to fill in those gaps in understanding with as much material as we can, no matter how far-fetched and implausible. As more time goes by, more and more conspiracy theories will inevitably attempt to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. In fact, conspiracy theories about the plane’s fate started making their rounds on the Internet within a few days of the disappearance.

According to one conspiracy theory, a surface-to-air missile launched by terrorists or a government entity brought the plane down. Another theory suggests that terrorists snuck a cutting-edge electromagnetic pulse weapon on board. When this device was activated, it caused the plane to lose power instantly and fall into the ocean. Similarly, one bizarre theory suggested by Angela Stalcup claims that some type of portable hydrogen bomb created a miniature black hole after it was activated by a terrorist’s iPhone app.

Whenever whole ships and planes go missing in the middle of the night, extraordinary claims of UFO meddling are sure to be put forth by those who seem to think the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a documentary. Claims of alien involvement in the disappearance of MH370 made their appearance in the fringe blogosphere less than a week after the incident, and these otherworldly speculations continue to be generated. For example, on the forums of Godlike Productions, a frequent user who goes by the handle Anonymous Coward suggests that the disappearance of MH370 marks the beginning of “Extra Terrestrial Disclosure”:

Think for a moment – look at the sheer efficiency of this event to get global attention. . . . That is a LOT of focused awareness, and getting people’s attention is POWER. Taken purely at that level, then, I asked myself if that is the actual purpose of what is going on – at least at this point. To get, and hold, the attention of most of the world. Because IN FACT, that is exactly what has happened. So strongly that people aren’t even paying as much attention to the Crimea crisis! So the next question is, naturally, WHY should this mechanism be used to focus everyone’s attention in the whole world? Why use THIS to do THAT?

The writer goes on to say that the answer to this question can be found by examining the condition of the world today. Anonymous Coward cites a laundry-list of third-world problems and global political unrest. The image conveyed by this forum user is bizarre: Obamacare, Connecticut storm troopers who kill gun owners in that state, the new Pope who is supposedly “turning Catholicism on its ear,” theocratic Muslims who want to enslave or kill all non-Muslims on the planet, and international bankers who are hell-bent on “literally” imploding the world economy.

“That’s just a snapshot, of course,” Anonymous Coward concludes. “But for a quick look, it’s pretty intense. And so now – RIGHT NOW – might be a good time for ET intervention, before things really serious get out of hand.”

But if there exist intelligent extraterrestrials who have taken a special interest in our planet and who want to interfere for our collective benefit, how is abducting a plane conducive to this end? Why not just reveal themselves tangibly in a way that is unmistakable? It is not as if this is the first time a large airliner has disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Even aficionados of biblical end-times prophecy have found significance in this mystery. For example, Christian doomsday preacher and self-proclaimed prophet Jonathan Kleck insists that the disappearance of MH370 is part of a false flag attack intended to announce the takeover of the West by Islam. Kleck is convinced that U.S. President Barack Obama is the antichrist who is facilitating this Islamic takeover of the West. His “evidence” for this nonsensical belief is a convoluted mixture of numerology and haphazard pattern-seeking among such disparate symbols as the trident on the Malaysian airliner’s tail, Obama’s campaign logo, and a comparison of the American and Malaysian flags. “Osiris has risen,” Kleck concludes. “The United States has fallen to Islam. That is the message from the missing Malaysian airliner.”

Actually, there is no message from the missing airliner, because everyone is still in the dark about the circumstances surrounding its disappearance and current whereabouts. However, there is a message to be gleaned from many of the speculations concerning this mystery, and this message has to do with the influence of popular culture on public thought. During its six-season run on television between 2004 and 2010, ABC’s hit show Lost introduced into popular culture the idea of supernatural and magical circumstances surrounding airplane disappearances, an idea that still appeals to the general public. The fate of the fictional Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 may have contributed to the popular discussion concerning what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Indeed, the proposal that something magical, supernatural, or divine happened to the Malaysian plane was discussed in all earnestness on CNN on Sunday, March 16. Evan McMurry, writing for Mediaite, reports on this discussion:

CNN anchor Don Lemon and Decoded host Brad Meltzer bandied about the idea Sunday afternoon that something “beyond our understanding” happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370, that “something” being perhaps supernatural maybe?

“Especially today, on a day when we deal with the supernatural,” Lemon said. “We go to church, the supernatural power of God…people are saying to me, why aren’t you talking about the possibility — and I’m just putting it out there — that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding?”

“People roll their eyes at conspiracy theories, but what conspiracy theories do is they ask the hardest, most outrageous questions sometimes, but every once in a while they’re right,” Meltzer said.

I challenge Meltzer to provide a single example of a supernatural claim that turned out to right.

The speed with which theories of conspiracies, extraterrestrial involvement, and applications of biblical prophecy have been propagated to “explain” the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are indicative of the lack of careful research and thorough deliberation among those who promote them. We would all do well to acknowledge that the vanishing of the plane remains a genuine mystery and to be highly skeptical of extraordinary claims that seek to provide answers prematurely. The real work of solving this riddle is an ongoing effort that involves much hard work by reputable investigators whose skills and training qualify them to eventually figure this out. This is an effort that leaves little room for uninformed speculation, and it is an effort that will hopefully leave the non-answers stemming from conspiracy theorists’ and paranormalists’ personal incredulity with less and less room to maneuver as time goes on.

MH370

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About Nathan Dickey

I am a freelance writer trying to finish my degree in Journalism. I attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My interests are many, and include investigative reporting, science, philosophy, history, classic rock music, and pop culture analysis. My motivation in writing is to contribute what I can to the promotion of science and skepticism among the public. My goal is to use my journalism training to be active in the skeptical and freethought movement, analyzing dubious but popularly-believed claims involving the supernatural, the paranormal and religion.
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2 Responses to The Mystery of Flight 370: A Skeptic’s Perspective

  1. otheus says:

    Good call on the link to the Lost TV series.

    At any rate, you appear to have not been following the case closely. It’s as if you wrote this 3 days after the plane’s disappearance. It’s been nearly a month now. Its primary *and* secondary transponders were either catastrophically or advertently disabled. It changed directions several times, altered altitudes in very odd ways, was seen flying back over the mainland, made radar contact in the Indian Ocean, and finally, in the last few weeks it’s been revealed, made contact to a satellite via hourly ‘pings’ in such a way that “pinpoints” its last location somewhere over the southern part of the Indian Ocean — ie, in the middle of nowhere.

    One theory you have missed purports that the flight’s passengers were a target — the patent holders to a patent licenses to a computer-chip manufacturing company owned by the Carlyle group which just happens to own the same company Edward Snowden worked for.

    The best explanation does seem to be an electrical fire that caused the systems to malfunction and short-circuit and led the pilots to take drastic actions and later ‘fly blind’ … but were then overtaken by smoke or lack of oxygen.

    However, a terror plot cannot be yet ruled out. My pet theory is that it was a ‘dry-run’ to establish the feasibility of hijacking an airplane post 9/11. Because it was a dry-run, there were no other longer-term goals, and in this case, the plane’s disappearance into the Indian Ocean makes sense, as it ensures the secrets of the operation are totally lost to investigators… or long enough such that a subsequent plot can be organized and carried out. The facts as I have ascertained are consistent with such a theory, but there’s probably no way to ever verify this unless one day a bunch of planes are hijacked and used 9/11 style.

  2. “At any rate, you appear to have not been following the case closely. It’s as if you wrote this 3 days after the plane’s disappearance. It’s been nearly a month now.”

    Actually, I have been following the case of Flight 370 almost daily since the day it disappeared almost a month ago. I am aware of all the developments you mentioned and more. But this article is not intended to be a play-by-play analysis, nor do I set out to provide an exhaustive list of all theories.The facts pertinent to my main point, which is intended to promote the benefits of using skepticism and critical thinking when following the story, are included.

    I also mentioned that remnants of what are believed (not confirmed) to be MH370 were found in the Indian Ocean southwest of Western Australia with the help of satellites, which is a recent development. So no, it is *not* “as if [I] wrote this 3 days after the plane’s disappearance.” The events surrounding the plane’s disappearance still remains as large and unsolved a mystery as it was the day it went missing, and in fact investigators might as well be back at square one since the battery of the plane’s black box, which is sending out the pings, is about to die.

    “One theory you have missed purports that the flight’s passengers were a target — the patent holders to a patent licenses to a computer-chip manufacturing company owned by the Carlyle group which just happens to own the same company Edward Snowden worked for.”

    That’s an intriguing theory, but a far-fetched one. It is not at all surprising that Edward Snowden’s name has been invoked in this case as an element to a theory. In fact, it’s predictable. Note what I wrote in another article written back in January:

    “Edward Snowden . . . has struck a chord in the hearts and minds of paranoid people who see cosmic significance and sinister conspiracies around every corner and in every event. The name of Edward Snowden is sure to be invoked in the future by conspiracy theorists in connection with everything from chemtrails and mind control experiments to secret psychic energy demonstrations and extraterrestrials. The bogus qualifier ‘leaked by Snowden’ will become the tag that identifies a corpus of conspiracy theories both old and new” (Nathan Dickey, “Edward Snowden and the Alien Conspiracy,” https://nathandickey.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/edward-snowden-and-the-alien-conspiracy/).

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