With the confirmation that the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, MH370, was  in all probability hijacked, its communications systems deliberately disabled, a raft of new questions arise about the airliner’s fate. The most tantalising is the possibility that the plane could have landed somewhere, intact. 

Again, it is necessary to look at the questions that arise from this news. Who took the plane? Suspicion appears to be falling on the co-pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, with the confirmation that he gave the last ‘all right, good night’ message to air traffic control, minutes after the first plane communication system (ACARS, the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System) was disabled. 

After the transponder was also switched off, the plane continued to communicate with an Inmarsat satellite on an hourly basis for over six further hours – for more than seven hours after takeoff in total. The satellite positioning is inexact – it was never intended to pinpoint airplane locations – so the ‘best guess’ location for the plane is a massive swathe of the earth that ranges from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to the southern Indian Ocean.

One big question, which was obvious from the outset, is why the alarm was not raised. If one of the pilots took control of the plane without the consent of the other, the other pilot must have been neutralised immediately to ensure that he was unable to punch in the four-digit code to the transponder that would have alerted air traffic control to the hijack. This of course is not outside the bounds of probability, and is something that a hijack plan would have had to take into account.

The other big question is why there was no communication from passengers. During the 9/11 hijacks many passengers phoned home or their offices. However, those planes had seatback phones and the Malaysian Airlines plane did not, so passengers would have had to rely on being able to get a mobile signal. As the plane is reported to have been flying at an unusually high altitude for parts of its journey, it is possible that passengers were simply unable to connect. 

However, during the early part of the hijack the plane was flying over the Malaysian peninsula, where it would be quite likely a signal could be obtained. It is possible, though, that at this stage the passengers were unaware that there was a problem.

The other issue is the plane’s complete disappearance. It does not seem to have appeared on the radar systems of other countries along its possible northward route, such as India. However, its unusual flight height, which seems to have varied from extremely high to extremely low, may mean that it managed to evade detection.

Given this, the problem of finding the plane is immense. Some of the southern part of the search area is over extremely deep water and if the plane crashed into the water here it will be extremely difficult to find. If it was put down somewhere on land in the northern search area, it has been pointed out that although in theory it requires a runway of considerable length, any large flat area might have been considered a possible landing area by the hijackers. It has to be added that while planes have landed successfully off-runway, for a large passenger plane to achieve this without serious damage would be unusual.

However, the hijack scenario presents another uncomfortable question. It is now over a week since the plane vanished. No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the hijacking, so if this is what happened, the hijackers must have been acting alone and for some reason have not made contact since the plane was taken. Presuming that the plane was taken for a purpose, the fact that the purpose has not become evident suggests that at some point it met with mishap. 

In perhaps the most tantalising puzzle of this century so far, the fate of MH370 remains shrouded in mystery. Who took the plane, and why? Most importantly, where did it land? Is it possible that some of those on board are still alive? Remarkably, in an age of seemingly blanket surveillance and satellite supervision, it seems likely at the moment that the airliner may never be found.

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