compassOn March 8, 2014 Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a Boeing 777, departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board. As it left Malaysian airspace the pilot, 53-year old Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, said, “Good night, Malaysian 370” to controllers. One minute later its transponder signal disappeared from radar screens. No further communications with the aircraft occurred. Malaysian radar showed that that the plane reversed course and flew southwest across Malaysia for half an hour. It reached the west coast of Malaysia, turned northwest, and continued on that course for another half hour before radar contact was finally lost.

After MH370 disappeared the Australian Transport Safety Bureau assumed responsibility for the accident investigation. In June, 2014 the ATSB reported on a sophisticated forensic analysis of transmissions from the on-board satellite communications system known as ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System). It concluded that shortly after Malaysian radar lost contract with the aircraft it made another turn, to the southwest, and continued on that heading for six hours until it ran out of fuel.

In July, 2015 a large piece of wreckage washed ashore on Reunion Island in the western Indian Ocean which was identified as a Boeing 777 control surface from MH370. Other debris determined to have come from MH370 was later recovered from beaches in Madagascar and East Africa.

Based on this information a 120,000 square kilometer (46,000 square miles) underwater search area approximately 1,500 miles west of Australia was established in the South Indian Ocean. An intensive search of the seafloor in this area, lying under more than 18,000 feet of water, yielded no trace of MH370, and search efforts were terminated in January, 2017.

On October 3, 2017 the ATSB issued its final report, a 440 page document analyzing the factual information collected during the 3½ year investigation.[1] The ATSB final report concluded that an analysis of this debris indicated that there was “a significant amount of energy at the time the aircraft entered the water, not consistent with a controlled ditching.” It further concluded that analysis of the final satellite transmissions from the aircraft indicated that the aircraft was descending at a rate between 13,000 and 25,000 feet per minute [equivalent to 150 to 285 miles per hour straight down]. “These rates,” said the ATSB, “ruled out a controlled unpowered glide with the intent to extend range.”

Media reports during the investigation indicated that Captain Shah had flight simulation software on his home personal computer with which he had simulated a flight into the South Indian Ocean. This was confirmed, without details, by Malaysian authorities in August, 2016. Further details were provided by the ATSB final report. Data recovered from his personal computer included a simulated flight by a Boeing 777 on February 2, 2014, one month before MH370 disappeared. The simulated flight departed from Kuala Lumpur and flew northwest across Malaysia.  It then turned left and headed into the southern Indian Ocean, continuing until fuel exhaustion west of Australia. “There were enough similarities to the flight path of MH370,” said the ATSB, “to carefully consider the possible implications for the underwater search area.” Left unstated was that Captain Shah apparently had conceived, and practiced, his final flight before making it.

The ATSB’s final report carefully avoids reaching any cause determination. “The reasons for the loss of MH370 cannot be determined with certainty until the aircraft is found,” it says.  Nonetheless, the facts set forth by the ATSB indicate that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 most likely resulted from deliberate human action, probably by the pilot.

“It is almost inconceivable and certainly societally unacceptable,” the ATSB says, “for a large commercial aircraft to be missing and for the world not to know with certainty what became of the aircraft and those on board.” But the facts established by its investigation suggest a deliberate effort, carefully considered and rehearsed in advance, to prevent certainty about the fate of the aircraft and those on board,. Such rare, intentional mass casualty events are nearly impossible to anticipate or forestall when carried out by skilled and determined individuals.

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[1] “The Operational Search for MH370,” ATSB Transport Safety Report, External Aviation Investigation AE-2014-054, Final—3 October 2017.