On Monday morning, a few fixed points we thought we had in the mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 were rubbed out or, at least, smudged. On Sunday, Malaysian authorities said that the plane’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) was turned off at 1:07 A.M. on March 8th, twenty-six minutes after it took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing. Then, like a row of candles being snuffed out, the last voice message from the cockpit came at 1:19 (“All right, good night”) and the transponder went silent at 1:21. This was suggestive: if the ACARS had been off for twelve minutes, the pilot would have known that when he called—so was he lying or did he have a gun to his head? And, if the transponder and ACARS stopped working a quarter of an hour apart, how could these outages be owing to a technical failure or a major electronic outage? The timeline, as officials acknowledged over the weekend, suggests criminal involvement.
But, like much of what Malaysian authorities have said, it may be all wrong. “The last ACARS transmission was One Zero Seven. O.K.? We don’t know when the ACARS was switched off after that,” Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, said at a press conference. “It was supposed to transmit thirty minutes from then, another transmission, but that transmission did not come through—that was the very last transmission they had, one zero seven. When it was switched off? Anytime between that and the next thirty minutes. O.K.?”
So the ACARS could have been operating fine until 1:37, eighteen minutes after the voice message—which, according to Ahmad Jauhari, came from the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, and not the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah. When Fariq said “all right,” he might have been telling the honest truth, for all we know. And the ACARS could, indeed, have stopped working simultaneously with the transponder, at 1:21.
Malaysia’s Defense Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, who had given the wrong information over the weekend, more or less shrugged when he was asked about it at the press conference Monday; this episode is not improving Malaysia’s reputation for transparency.
There was undoubtedly some sort of human drama on this plane. We may, once again, have to widen our search. Flight 370 made strange turns—a sharp west hook over the Malaysian peninsula, and a northern jab in the Straits of Malacca—for which there are radar and other tracking traces until 2:15 A.M. A person was still deciding something, at least for a while—maybe several people, maybe pilots, and maybe even non-criminal passengers, though a change in altitude might have knocked them out, and perhaps was meant to. (The plane ascended to the upper limit of its vertical range.) But could it have been an effort to survive something other than a criminal act? The plane’s systems operated, we know from a satellite ping, until 8:11 that morning, so anyone alive then would have had hours to see the sky turn light. Or maybe it was all over.
The pilots’ homes were searched over the weekend, their friends were interviewed, and a flight simulator was seized from Zaharie’s home. The backgrounds of the passengers and the ground crew are being scrutinized, too. [Update: one of many theories, all with complexities and flaws, comes from Chris Goodfellow, who suggests that the pilot was trying to respond to a fire.]
There is a wildness to how wide the search for the plane now is, after first being concentrated in the Gulf of Thailand (which is big enough). That 8:11 ping, we’ve been told, means that, at that moment, the plane crossed one of two arcs—one that curves northward, from about the Laos-Vietnam border to Kazakhstan, the other southward from the Java Sea, with a quick clip over Indonesia and then on to an open stretch of the Indian Ocean. That southern arc ends far west of Perth, near nothing. Each arc has its own illogic.
The northern arc resonates with what we think we know about terrorists; it crosses countries of political and military interest—western China, Burma—the vectors from the plane’s last known position to the arc pass through places like India and Bangladesh. With what fuel it had left, the plane could have gone on to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, or Iran, or half a dozen other places. (The Times has a useful map.) These are places Americans, at least, have conditioned ourselves to expect in stories about hijacked planes. There have been questions about what the radar at the United States’ Bagram Air Base might have seen. But it didn’t see anything. Neither, apparently, did civilian or military radar in the other countries. (A spokesman for the Taliban in Afghanistan and a Pakistani Taliban commander told Reuters that they didn’t know where Flight 370 was, either. “We wish we had an opportunity to hijack such a plane,” the commander said.) There are holes in radar—just when one wouldn’t mind some surveillance, it turns out to be lacking—but it would have taken real luck or navigational sophistication for the plane to make its way through. Both luck and sophistication do exist, though.
The southern arc fits with what we know about technology; the radar gaps are wide, and the unbroken expanse of the Indian Ocean makes the Andaman Sea, which last Thursday seemed like a stunning addition to the search area, look small. You could steer a plane there—but why would you? There is so little around. “If the aircraft took that path, it might have passed near the Cocos (Keeling) Islands,” the Times noted. “These remote Australian islands, with a population of fewer than a thousand people, have a small airport.” As landmarks go, it is not the Twin Towers.
This has been the problem with the terrorist scenario from the beginning. Where is the statement, the manifesto, and the video on YouTube? We expect our terrorists to be loud and flashy. And we expect our suicidal pilots to be deceptive, to at least try to make the crash look like an accident. (Another detail that could mean something or nothing: the co-pilot, Fariq, and pilot, Zaharie, did not specially ask to work with each other.) But, then, relying on expectations may be the least useful thing in this situation.
The Australians are now taking the lead in the search of the southern arc. Twenty-six countries are involved. The investigation is still in Malaysia’s hands, though, and it still seems fragile, as if, with the next press conference and the next reÃ«xamined assumption, it could violently change course again.
And then there is the most unfathomable thing of all: two hundred and thirty-nine people were on that plane. Their families have been waiting and watching. They are poised between mourning and what must be a tempting uncertainty. They can still decide not to know—in fact, we still don’t know. Each mother or father, or sibling or child, may just want, for now, to continue on an unmappable arc.