It seems almost impossible to believe, but the Malaysian government must have known since shortly after it crashed that Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the pilot of the doomed flight MH370, deliberately put the plane down in the Indian Ocean on the night of March 8, 2014 after rendering everybody aboard unconscious and creating the greatest mystery in aviation history.
The question that someone needs to be asking in Malaysia is the classic one posed to government officials before: What do you know, and when did you know it?
New York Magazine, in a stunning story last week, reported that a leak from the Malaysian government revealed the US Federal Bureau of Investigation had found evidence on Zaharie’s deleted flight-simulator hard drives indicating he had practiced a one-way flight into the southern Indian Ocean, just about the place a multimillion dollar search has been continuing for over two years. The Indian Ocean flight was among many on the simulator.
Although Malaysian authorities including the inspector general of police, Khalid Abu Bakar, flatly denied the story, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau confirmed to the Australian news show 60 Minutes over the weekend that the FBI did examine the simulator and did find a route plotted into the southern Indian Ocean.
Khalid said the Malaysians would have to wait for recovery of the plane’s black box, which may never be found. Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai has dismissed the speculation, saying Zaharie's flight simulator records weren’t proof that he had intended to commit suicide, which if nothing else appears to be an admission that they knew about the simulator records.
But Malaysia, coincidentally in the middle of the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history with as much as US$4 billion having disappeared from 1Malaysia Development Bhd., thus now has a scandal now that in some ways is more visceral, involving real people, the families of the 227 passengers and 12 Malaysian crew who have bitterly attacked the government ever since the plane disappeared, accusing it of denying them “existing rights in law, including also access to justice mechanisms.”
So far, the mainstream Malaysian press, all of which are owned by the ruling political parties, have played the story very carefully, leaning more on the denials of government officials than on what appears to be evidence of a cover-up. With the opposition largely in disarray, under threat from sedition charges and a new anti-terrorism act that gives the government the right to arrest anybody for reasons of its own choosing, hard questions are not being asked.
Underwater cameras have searched 150,000 square km of the South Indian Ocean. But except for a piece of the wing called a flaperon, which was found last July on Reunion Island, a dot 200 km from Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and a second piece found later, MH370 might as well have been vaporized.
However, in an article in The Australian, a commercial pilot named Byron Bailey argued that the flight-simulator data proved that Zaharie had committed suicide, and that with that data in hand, search officials should have known where to look for it. Supposedly the condition of the flaperon which tore loose from the wing tells part of the story. Its trailing edge was damaged, as if the flaps were lowered as the plane descended toward what was presumed to be a controlled landing. If indeed Zaharie actually was able to put the Boeing 777-200ER down that gently, it would have remained largely intact and sunk to the bottom of the ocean, instead of going into a power dive as it ran out of fuel and exploding into thousands of parts, many of which would have floated and been found.
It isn’t impossible. It may have been flown in as carefully as US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 which Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger flew into the Hudson River in New York in 2009 after a bird strike disabled both engines. Sullenberger set the plane down so gently that it remained completely intact, except for having an engine torn off. If MH370 went in that carefully – an astonishing feat in an open ocean – almost all of the floatable bits may have gone to the bottom with it.
Certainly the Malaysians have inadvertently fed suspicions, initially refusing to release the full cargo manifest, raising suspicions that flammable materials such as lithium batteries might be aboard. It has seemed impossible to conclude anything but a deliberate pilot act ever since the plane disappeared.
According to controllers’ logs, the pilots said good night to Malaysia and never said hello to the Vietnamese controllers who were supposed to pick them up and monitor them. Instead, MH370, somewhere out over the South China Sea, is said to have made a steady climbing left turn up to 14,000 meters, putting the passengers to sleep, apparently for good, as it passed above the rated oxygen limit of the plane.
Then it apparently dropped back to 3,700 meters, seemingly sought to duck under Malaysian radar and disappeared forever. Seemingly all systems that might trace the plane were shut off. But pings from MH370’s Rolls-Royce engines enabled investigators to follow the aircraft as far as they could. As far as can be determined, the information was turned over by US and Boeing authorities to provide crucial cooperation to Malaysia in the search for the craft. It is unknown when the Malaysians took possession of the data from the flight simulator and when they returned the information back to the Malaysian government. But it must have been relatively early on.
The plane never issued a distress signal. None of the 227 passengers has been identified as connected to a cause or group that would be interested in hijacking the plane. The histories of the pilot and co-pilot have both been investigated exhaustively.
Zahairie has been fiercely defended by his fellow MAS air crews. But the answer may never be known. The last anybody heard, Kuala Lumpur Radar told the plane: "Malaysian three seven zero, contact Ho Chi Minh one two zero decimal nine. Good night."
"Good night. Malaysian three seven zero,” Zaharie said. Nobody ever said hello to Ho Chi Minh one two zero decimal nine.