Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was making a routine redeye trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it disappeared over the South China Sea at around 1:20 in the morning on March 8, 2014. The plane, which was carrying 227 passengers and a dozen crew members, has never been found.
Over the years since, numerous books, documentaries, TV episodes, and more have chronicled what has become known as the “biggest mystery in modern aviation history.” Netflix’s MH370: The Plane That Disappeared, a three-part, two-and-a-half hour docuseries, is one of the latest, focusing on several of the conspiracy theories that have arisen over the plane’s fate.
What do we really know about what happened to MH370 and the 239 people onboard, though? While the Netflix series delves into many of the theories—some fringe, some more mainstream—the fact is that, as the series repeats at the beginning of each episode, “We don’t have the answers.”
Here’s what we do know…
The Disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
Shortly after one o’clock in the morning on March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 left Malaysian airspace on a routine overnight flight to Beijing. The plane was a Boeing 777, and the last communication from the pilot was when he said “goodnight” to the Malaysian air traffic controllers at around 1:20. As the flight headed north, across the South China Sea, it was being handed off from Malaysian air traffic control to Vietnam, and Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was told to contact Ho Chi Minh just before his fateful “goodnight.”
Somewhere, in the “grey zone” between Malaysia’s airspace and Vietnam’s, the plane went dark. All its electronic communications shut off, and it disappeared from radar screens. By 1:30, when the plane had not contacted air traffic controllers in Vietnam, another pilot attempted to reach MH370 via the international air distress frequency. This pilot claimed to establish contact, but heard only “mumbling and static.”
If he truly did reach Flight 370, that mumbling and static was the last anyone heard from anybody on board. Long before Flight 370 failed to arrive at its destination around 6:30 in the morning, it was clear that something had gone very wrong.
The Mystery Deepens
While family members waited desperately for any word of what had become of their loved ones, the authorities in Malaysia were “virtually scrambling,” as Fuad Sharuji, then the crisis director for Malaysia Airlines, told the Netflix documentary crew, “calling everyone we could think of.” The plane had around 8 hours of fuel left when it had last made digital contact with air traffic control, which meant that it was possible that it was still flying, or that it had landed at another airport.
As the hours ticked on, however, the likelihood that there was any reassuring answer to the questions surrounding the flight’s disappearance grew thinner and thinner. It was not until March 10, two full days after the plane vanished, that the first real clue came to light—a clue that would also prove to be the first of several shocking twists in the story.
On March 10, Malaysian officials announced that military radar had picked up what might have been Flight 370 more than an hour after its disappearance—flying hundreds of miles off course, back over the Malaysian peninsula. While there was still no indication of what had happened to the flight or why, this did suggest that search and rescue efforts, which were already underway in the South China Sea, where the plane had first disappeared, might be looking in completely the wrong place.
What Happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?
Once it became apparent that the flight may have veered hundreds of miles off course and potentially flown for hours after disappearing from air traffic control, the proposition of searching for the plane became considerably more complicated. Now, instead of a relatively small patch of the South China Sea, rescuers had to be looking for the plane potentially almost anywhere within about an eight hour flight.
Fortunately for authorities, a possible narrowing of the field was still to come. After all other communication with the plane had been lost, it had made seven or so more “handshake” connections between onboard electronics and satellites. These automated contacts, sometimes called “pings,” placed the plane along one of two corridors above the Indian Ocean. Inmarsat, the company responsible for the telecommunication equipment that was making the connections, eventually crunched the numbers to determine that the plane had headed along the southward route, deep into the Indian Ocean where there was nowhere to land.
At this point, authorities announced that the flight was lost and that those on board could not have survived—a statement that often did not sit well with family members. “Never in the history of human existence have 239 people been declared dead on the basis of mathematics alone,” aviation journalist Jeff Wise, one of the conspiracy theorists interview heavily in The Plane That Disappeared, was quoted as saying.
Despite the slim chances, search and rescue work, headed by nearby Australia, continued in the southern Indian Ocean for some two years after the crash, but no sign of the plane—even of wreckage—was ever found. At least, not there. In 2015, a piece of wing from a Boeing 777 was found on the French island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, some 2,500 miles west of the search area. Though the piece was heavily damaged by considerable time in the water, and missing certain identifying marks, there were serial numbers on internal components that officials matched “with certainty” to flight 370.
Using drift models for ocean-borne debris, several more pieces that may have come from MH370 were found in subsequent months in Mozambique and Madagascar, many of them by self-styled “adventurer” Blaine Gibson. However, these small pieces made up only a tiny portion of the large Boeing 777, and none could be definitively linked to MH370.
In the Absence of Evidence, Conspiracy Theories Flourish
“The profundity of this mystery,” aviation journalist Jeff Wise says in The Plane That Disappeared, “had created a vacuum.” And into that vacuum, conspiracy theories flowed like water—some of them put forward by Wise himself.
With no solid explanation of what had become of MH370 and the 239 people onboard, everyone tried to come up with an explanation that fit the facts. Some pointed fingers at the captain, claiming he had hijacked his own plane and flown it into the ocean to commit mass murder/suicide. But then, what had become of the wreckage? And why fly so far before going down?
Others suggested that the plane had been hijacked by Russian operatives and flown to Kazakhstan, rather than deep into the Indian Ocean, a claim which was bolstered when Russian troops shot down another Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine, but which stretched credulity due to its conflict with the Inmarsat data and some fanciful ideas about how such a hijacking might take place. These two theories are each presented in detail in the Netflix docuseries, along with an idea that the plane was, in fact, shot down over the South China Sea by United States aircraft, in order to prevent a mysterious cargo from reaching China—an idea put forward by a French journalist but which presents a number of its own problems.
And these are merely the conspiracy theories focused on in the Netflix series. Others include explosive lithium batteries and even alien abduction. Ultimately, however, as the series repeats, we don’t have the answers. Even today, nearly ten years after the tragedy, we still don’t know what happened to flight 370—and at this point, it’s possible that we never will.
While some of the family members may continue their search, most official inquiries have ceased. In 2017, a six-volume Safety Investigation Report concluded that they were “unable to determine the real cause for the disappearance of MH370.”
Though answers are still few and far between, there have been significant repercussions as a result of this mystery, including financial compensation for the families of missing passengers, and major changes to the airline industry in efforts to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again. For some, however, these will never be enough.