What could have caused the captain of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, to have entered data points over the southern Indian Ocean into his home flight simulator for a Boeing 777 well before he and 238 other people vanished in the same area on March 8, 2014?
It is a question that forms a prominent part of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) final report into the search for the jet, which was on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and over the Gulf of Thailand when it suddenly veered off course and ‘went dark’ to civil air traffic control systems.
The report is described by the ATSB as closing the chapter on its involvement in the search for the sunk wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight. Malaysia continues to conduct its own investigation into the causes of the accident.
Speculation about the causes of the world’s highest profile aviation mystery has ranged from quite compelling hypotheticals of a technical crisis on board that overwhelmed the pilots, to more popular theories that for various reasons, the captain planned the jet’s disappearance, with some of those scenarios including an attempted ditching of the aircraft after it had flown to parts of the ocean SW of Perth, Western Australia.
And while the ATSB summary of its final report is thorough, and almost without controversy, it is the full report and its supporting documentation, that is guaranteed to fuel continued fierce speculation and debate as to what happened on board.
This is part of the section on the data points found on the Captain’s home flight simulator:
Why would such data, involving a jet that had run out of fuel, be created for such a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean, far from anywhere on the Malaysia Airline’s route map? What lay behind the choice of altitude, and so forth?
The nagging questions that arose over the captain’s flight simulator also became inextricably, for some, tied up with the theory that the jet was glided to a splash down.
However as the detailed report makes clear, the recovered fragments of wreckage include some that make it apparent the 777 was almost certainly configured for cruising at altitude, not landing, when it struck the sea.
The final ATSB report identifies an also ‘final’ unsearched area of 25,000 square kilometres of sea floor which is now believed to contain the highest probability of being MH370’s last resting place.
That large sweep of sea is at least proximate with suspicions that the jet came down near the intersection of the so called 7th arc of possible locations of MH370 and latitude 35 degrees South. Those suspicions arose for the first time when potential debris was imaged by a French satellite on March 23, 2014, in an area that was never examined close up by searching aircraft.
After the ‘suspension’ of the sea floor search was announced in January this year it was also revealed that reanalysis of the satellite images showed that some of the apparently solid objects shown were probably manmade and were also consistent with the latest CSIRO drift analysis as to where floating wreckage may have gone in the weeks after an impact in this same general zone.
The reluctance of the Australian government, and its Malaysia and China search partners to resume a search of that area since last December has also added to unease and anger among next of kin, and even at times, among experts involved in the search and analysis of available MH370 data.
The ATSB has closed its chapter on an incredibly detailed and professionally competent search for the heavy sunk wreckage of the missing jet. It assuredly hasn’t ended the controversies about MH370, nor eliminated the possibility that the search has been ended at a time and place where it was close to success.