A safety report into the disappearance of flight MH370 has concluded that the plane was manually turned around mid-air, rather than being under the control of autopilot, and that “unlawful interference by a third party” could not be ruled out.
It also disproved theories that had suggested the pilot and first officer brought the plane down in a suicide mission, and accusations of mechanical failure.
However, the long-awaited report – which was initially described as the “final report”, although investigators then backtracked from that description – left the hopes of the families dashed after it failed to provide any concrete conclusions about the reasons the plane disappeared nor any indication where the wreckage might be.
Speaking at a press conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Dr Kok Soo Chon, the investigator in charge of the MH370 safety investigation, did not assign blame for the incident but laid out several protocols that were broken by the air traffic control in Malaysia and Vietnam that ensured the plane went missing for 20 minutes before anyone was alerted.
It also concluded that all four of MH370’s emergency locator transmitters (ELT), malfunctioned, meaning they did not give off the normal distress signals that would help locate the plane. The report noted that “there have been reported difficulties with ELT signals if an aircraft enters the water” but could not give conclusive reasons for the failure.
One of the few concrete conclusions drawn in the report was that the manoeuvre to turn the plane around, taking it off its normal flight path just after 1am, was initiated manually, either by the pilot or a third party, rather than because of autopilot, although it did not speculate on reasons.
“The turn back could not be attributed to an anomalous system,” said Kok. “It has been established that the air turn back was done under manual control, not autopilot … we cannot rule out unlawful interference by a third party.”
Kok added that while some evidence “points irresistibly to unlawful interference, such as the communications ceasing and the manual turn back”, he also emphasised that no terrorist group had claimed responsibility.
Flight MH370, which was travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, vanished in March 2014 with 239 people onboard. It had just entered Malaysian airspace, when for unknown reasons the Boeing-777 changed course, flying for more than six hours with its satellite and navigation systems turned off, before plummeting into the Indian Ocean.
Attempts to locate the plane have been extensive over the past four years, turning into one of the largest underwater search operations in history, but have yielded no results other than three wing fragments that washed up on the shore, leaving families entirely in the dark about what happened to their loved ones.
Rather than providing answers, the 1,500-page report disproved many of the theories that have abounded about what happened to MH370. This included blaming the pilot and the first officer, accusing them of bringing down the plane in a suicide mission, and also accusations that the plane had suffered mechanical failure.
“There was no record of malfunction or defect in the aircraft that could have contributed to the disappearance,” said Kok.
The role of the pilot was dismissed by the report. Kok said his investigators looked meticulously into the background and found nothing to raise suspicion. “We have examined the pilot and the first officer and we are quite satisfied with their background, with their training, with their mental health,” he said. “We are not of the opinion that it could have been an event committed by the pilot.”
He added: “I’m not ruling out anything, but there were two psychiatrists in my team and they were responsible for examining the audio recordings of the pilot and they concluded there was no anxiety and no stress in the recording, it was just normal, and they also recorded the footage from CCTV … they didn’t find any significant behavioural changes.”
Other theories disproved by the report included speculation that the plane’s cargo, which included 4,566kg of mangosteens and 221kg of lithium-ion batteries, had sparked to cause a fire.
Overall the safety investigators found most fault with the air traffic controllers, first in Kuala Lumpur and then Ho Chi Minh City, who were meant to be watching the plane but who had not followed protocol, meaning the plane was off radar for about 20 minutes before anyone was alerted.
“The air traffic controllers did not initiate the various emergency phases required of them, thereby delaying the activation of the search and rescue operations,” he said.
“They did not maintain a continuous watch on the radar display, did not release control according to the agreed transfer time, relied too much on masked information and did not initiate the various emergency phases as required.”
Next of kin of those onboard looked distraught after receiving the report, many sobbing and saying that it offered them “no closure”, and some claimed that information in it was incorrect.
Grace Subathirai Nathan, a Malaysian whose mother, Anne Daisy, was onboard the flight, complained that there was “a lack of depth in the answers and no adequate answer to some pertinent queries” given to the families.
“They appear not to have questioned or challenged what was handed over to them nor was any new independent investigation launched,” said Nathan, criticising the scope of the investigation. “All in all the report did not reveal anything new or earth-shattering. No conclusions were drawn, no blame was assigned.”
Her despair was echoed by Jennifer Chong, whose husband was onboard the flight. “To me, it is a helpless day as doors are shut,” she said.
Nathan said that, for the families, this report did not mark the end of the search. “It’s not over until MH370 is found,” she said. “Therefore there can be no final report until MH370 is found and this can be prevented. The search must go on.”