Could a plane like this disappear? Photo: Getty.
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Five theories to explain how Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 could have disappeared

With no mayday call, no data and no wreckage found, conspiracy-style theories as to how Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared seem increasingly plausible. Planes don't disappear. Or do they?

The most baffling thing about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is that it is so difficult to draw parallels with similar disasters. This has never happened before. The airline, the civil aviation authority, the region’s air navigation service providers, and even the aircraft and engine manufacturers themselves appear clueless.

Modern planes don’t disappear: they are equipped with a range of high-tech reporting and recording systems, many of which send back data at frequent intervals to either the airline or the plane’s manufacturers. But, shortly after the plane reached a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, everything seemed to stop. Even publicly available information found on aviation enthusiast websites and transmitted from ADS-B trackers installed on almost all aircraft say absolutely nothing about what happened. This means the aircraft’s transponder stopped working immediately, which is incredibly rare.

The Boeing 777 series is one of the safest, most reliable aircraft in the industry and has a near perfect safety record, having been involved in only ten accidents since its debut in 1995. The aircraft in question was a 777-200ER. It was only 12 years old, and had an impeccable maintenance record.

If the aircraft had disintegrated at the point at which its transponder stopped working, there would be debris spread over a huge area – the same area that has been the main focus of all search activities. Data sent by the aircraft would have indicated some sort of change in speed or height. The area around the point where contact was lost isn’t particularly isolated and the many ships in the vicinity would have seen something, especially given the clear weather conditions at the time.

If all communication had been lost, for whatever reason, and the aircraft had continued flying on its intended course, turned back or gone wildly off course, it would have been tracked. In a region with so many separate air forces, if the aircraft had continued over Vietnam or back-tracked over Thailand then one of their air forces would’ve seen it – even with its transponder disabled.

The information released by the authorities has been confused and inconsistent to say the least – but working on the information we have, there seem to be no obvious explanations for what could have happened:

Did the plane break up mid-air?

At first glance, this would be the most likely reason for the disappearance. In 2002 a China Airlines Boeing 747 disintegrated over the Taiwan Straight, killing all 225 on board. One key parallel here is that this catastrophe took place shortly after reaching 35,000 feet. The main reason for this accident was later found to be metal fatigue caused by inadequate maintenance following a previous incident. Should this have happened to MH370 due to either a structural issue with the aircraft or an explosion caused by a bomb or an exploding fuel tank, there would be debris. In all similar incidents, the wreckage has been found not long after the crash. This makes the most common-sense explanation difficult to believe.

Did the engines fail?

Were the aircraft’s two engines to fail, the plane could still glide for 80 to 90 miles. This has happened before. In 2001 Air Transat Flight 236, a large Airbus A330 (only slightly smaller than the Malaysia Airlines 777) lost all power over the  Atlantic en route to Lisbon. The pilot managed to glide (yes, glide) the aircraft over 65 miles with absolutely no power. Everyone survived.

Did cabin pressure drop suddenly, causing the pilot to lose consciousness?

If an aircraft were to suddenly lose pressure at a very high altitude, there is a chance that this could cause the crew to lose consciousness. In 2005 this happened to Helios Airways Flight 522, a Boeing 737 flying from Larnaca to Athens. The loss of pressure was so severe that it knocked passengers and crew out for almost two hours. In this case, the pilots should have been able to react quickly and connect to oxygen masks, but didn’t. The aircraft flew for almost two more hours until it ran out of fuel and crashed. If this happened to MH370, then it doesn’t explain the sudden disappearance. Data would still be sent from the plane, and the chances are that the crew would have been able to respond.

Did the pilot commit suicide?

This has become one of the Malaysian authorities’ key focus areas. Did one of the pilots do something to crash the aircraft? This is believed to have been the cause of the 1999 Egypt Air Flight 990 crash over the Atlantic. Data recorded by the aircraft and picked up by air traffic control, together with voice recordings from the cockpit, suggested that the co-pilot played a role in this disaster – although this was denied by the airline and not confirmed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Perhaps voice recordings from the black boxes will eventually provide some sort of detail about what happened in the final minutes before, and after, contact was lost. Until then, even this explanation seems unlikely: it doesn’t explain why the plane stopped transmitting data.

Was this a terrorist attack?

This was one of the main initial lines of investigation and the discovery that two Iranian passengers were travelling on stolen European passports generated a flurry of speculation. Now that it seems these men were asylum seekers, the explanation looks much less probable. Besides, why would terrorists target a Malaysian aircraft full of Chinese nationals? Even the western Chinese separatist theory seems improbable. And again, if a bomb had gone off, there would be data or debris. Alternatively, if the plane had been hijacked, surely communication would have been made by now?

With no facts, conspiracy-style theories are becoming almost conceivable. Has there been some sort of cover-up? Did MH370 hit a military aircraft (unlikely at that height)? Was the aircraft hijacked and landed in a secret location for use later on? Did corporate or political sabotage play a role? There are even more peculiar, but strangely hopeful hypotheses involving alien abduction or time travellers from the future, along the lines of the 1989 movie Millenium.

With no mayday call, no data and no wreckage, there are too many theories to follow. Until there’s evidence that the aircraft crashed there has to be hope. After all, planes don’t just disappear. Or do they?

CORRECTION [17/02/2014]: As pointed out by a reader, Helios Airways Flight 522 did not experience a sudden loss of cabin pressure. Instead, a series of mistakes by ground and flight crews meant that the cabin never pressurised during flight, and the warning lights and siren were misinterpreted as a problem with the plane's landing gear. The pilots, crew and passengers passed out, and the plane flew on autopilot until crashing into hills near the village of Grammatiko, north of Athens.

Collage by New Statesman
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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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