Nearly a year after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean, the “rogue pilot theory” has emerged as the most plausible explanation among several.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The retired chief pilot of Malaysia Airlines is torn between logic and loyalty to an old friend. Nik Huzlan, 56, was one of the first captains to fly the 12-year-old Boeing 777 that disappeared over the Indian Ocean a year ago this Sunday. He knew the pilot who flew the plane that day, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, for decades.
Huzlan is convinced that deliberate human intervention, most likely by someone in the cockpit, caused the aircraft, on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, to suddenly turn around, cease communication with air traffic control and some six hours later run out of fuel and fall into the ocean. But he also said he had never seen anything in more than 30 years of friendship that would suggest that Zaharie was capable of such a deed.
“Based on logic, when you throw emotion away, it seems to point a certain direction which you can’t ignore,” Huzlan said. “Your best friend can harbor the darkest secrets.”
No trace of the plane has been found, although four ships continue to scour a section of the ocean floor roughly the size of West Virginia and as deep as 3 miles below the surface. Without the plane’s flight recorders, the disappearance remains a mystery.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- The Gateses’ public split spotlights a secretive fortune, with a hush-hush Kirkland entity at the center
- Beneath Biden’s folksy demeanor, a short fuse and an obsession with details
- Greene searched Capitol office building for Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, 2019 video shows
- Wild horses adopted under a federal program are going to slaughter
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
But the “rogue-pilot theory,” as investigators call it, has emerged as the most plausible explanation among several. Many, but not all, the investigators and experts who have reviewed the limited evidence say Zaharie, or perhaps the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, is the likeliest culprit, although they caution that the evidence is limited and circumstantial and that the theory is full of holes, such as lack of a motive.
“I would say that’s my favorite, because it would fit best with what has happened,” said Peter Marosszeky, a longtime Australian airline executive who is a senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales. But he added that without finding and retrieving at least part of the plane, it would be hard to say anything conclusively.
Others offer a different explanation for the disappearance of a jumbo jet with 239 people aboard: mechanical failure, a fire, hijacking, sabotage or some other event.
Psychological profiles of the pilot prepared after the disappearance of Flight 370 do not suggest Zaharie could have taken the plane down or would have had a compelling reason for doing so, several people with knowledge of the investigation said. His family has emphatically denied that he would have deliberately turned the plane around and flown it to its destruction.
A rival theory in the early days after the plane’s disappearance, a midair equipment failure, falls apart for lack of a breakdown that could swiftly disable separate communications systems but still allow the plane to stay in the air and perform a long series of maneuvers.
There were no reports of bad weather in the area.
Yet at 1:21 a.m. last March 8, 40 minutes into the flight, all communication with the aircraft was lost, and its radar label vanished from the screens of ground controllers. According to military radar, which continued to track the plane, it suddenly altered its northeasterly course, veering west and south, over the Malay Peninsula and across the island of Penang, where Zaharie grew up. It then headed out to sea across the Strait of Malacca before turning south into the Indian Ocean.
Why is a question that may not be answered until the wreckage is found, and possibly not even then. The Malaysian government is expected to release an accident report in the next several days that may provide more information.
That puts the focus on finding the aircraft. Search planes and ships have been scouring the ocean west of Australia since last March. Based on modeling from the aircraft’s electronic handshakes with a satellite positioned over the Indian Ocean, an Australian-led team narrowed the search area to a 23,000-square-mile swath of ocean, about 1,100 miles west-northwest of Perth, Australia.
Four ships under contract by the Australian and Malaysian governments are searching the site. Crews work 12-hour days, with no days off, six weeks at a time.
The vessels are towing side-scan sonar devices that glide above the ocean floor at the end of armored fiber-optic cables up to 10,000 yards long, creating detailed maps of the ocean floor. They follow a pattern like mowing a lawn, heading back and forth in the search box to cover every square yard.
They have scoured nearly half the area, and they expect to complete the job by May.
“We still have pretty good confidence that we’ll find the aircraft in the priority search area,” Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the agency leading the search, said in a telephone interview.