A little after midnight on Saturday, March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport for its six-hour flight to Beijing Capital International Airport. It made its last contact with Malaysian air traffic control 38 minutes after takeoff, then dropped off ATC radar. It was tracked by Malaysian military radar for another hour before flying out of Malaysian-monitored airspace. The plane’s satellite communication system continued to make hourly “handshakes” with an Inmarsat satellite until 8:19 a.m. The plane has not been seen or heard from since, its 227 passengers and 12 crew presumed dead.
International authorities eventually concluded that the airline crashed into the Southern Indian Ocean, the crash officially ruled an accident. This conclusion was reached by a highly technical analysis of the plane’s satellite metadata. Malaysia, China, and Australia conducted massive maritime searches for the airline beginning in 2014, but ended those searches in January 2017. A private company reopened the search for six months in 2018, but like the previous searches, found nothing. Over the next few years, airplane debris belonging to MH370’s type of plane, a Boeing 777, was found on islands in the Western Indian Ocean or washed up on countries in East Africa. Together with the radar and satellite metadata, these debris are the only evidence of MH370’s fate.
Jeff Wise is a Harvard-educated science reporter who specializes in aviation and psychology. He has followed the disappearance of MH370 since the beginning, and in this book reaches a startling conclusion at odds with the official account: The plane didn’t crash (on accident or through a terrorist event). It was taken by Russian operatives and flown to Yubileyniy, a Russian controlled airstrip in Kazakhstan. The most likely reason for the hijacking—and hence murder of 239 souls—was to distract Western authorities from Russia’s 2014 depredations in Ukraine.
I know, I know—that’s crazy talk, right? It is a measure of Wise’s journalistic skill and aviation expertise that The Taking of MH370 carries you along with it almost to the end of the book. Wise highlights multiple anomalies in the data points acknowledged by all authorities, focusing on four in particular: (1) The satellite metadata “came out of nowhere.” For unexplained reasons, the aircraft’s satellite data unit (SDU) powered off, stopped transmitting, then sometime later rebooted and started transmitting again. Authorities have not adequately explained why this happened.
(2) The satellite metadata “transmitted an unexpected clue.” Normally, metadata does not transmit information about where and how a plane is traveling. But for technical reasons involving the SDU’s manufacturer, the age of the Inmarsat satellite, and the plane’s path along a north-south axis, its flightpath could be inferred. Wise finds this “awfully convenient.”
(3) The satellite metadata “couldn’t be cross-checked with any other evidence.” The Inmarsat data is the only hard evidence we have as to reconstruct MH370’s flight.
But (4) “when evidence later emerged that could have confirmed the turn south [instead of north to Beijing], it didn’t.” The massive years-long maritime search found no airplane. The debris that washed ashore showed evidence of being in the water for a shorter period of time than required had the plane crashed into the ocean when MH370 did. Also, debris showed up in places that were hard to reconstruct given knowledge of weather and ocean currents. And, again referring to the SDU’s reboot, Wise argues that the reboot signal contained serious anomalies never explained by authorities.
Had Wise left the matter with these anomalies, his book merely would’ve demonstrated how little we actually know about the fate of MH370, indeed, how weird reality unfortunately can be. It’s the Russia angle that pushes his book from acknowledging the weird to speculating the crazy. Think of it this way: Wise makes much of the fact that the satellite metadata pointed investigators in one direction, but the plane was never found. Fair enough, but he takes this as dispositive that the plane never went in that direction. But that’s not quite right, logically speaking. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all.
And anyway, other than speculation, what precisely is the evidence for Russian involvement? Honestly, I couldn’t see any that was persuasive. No one tracked MH370 to Kazakhstan. No satellite metadata places it in the vicinity. No satellite observed it. (And given that this is a Russian military airstrip, one assumes the U.S. is watching it closely.) I grant that Putin is a bad man and that Russia wanted to distract the West from what Russian forces were doing in Ukraine, but the fact that the story of MH370 took Ukraine off the front pages does not constitute evidence of the taking of MH370.
Indeed, the evidence Wise cites of Russia’s use of disinformation to distract its enemies and pursues its policy directives points us away from his conclusions about MH370. Toward the end of the book, Wise cites Russia’s use of disinformation in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as proof of its nefarious intent. Russia’s nefariousness, I think we can all agree, goes without saying. But here’s the problem: We know what they did and what they’re doing, right down to the name and address of the GRU officer unleashing bots on Facebook and Twitter. When Russian-backed Ukrainian forces shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 four months after MH370 disappeared, according to Wise, we could literally observe via satellite the truck that fired the missile. Given U.S. penetration of Russian intelligence operations, given our satellite observations of their military, it’s difficult for me to believe that Russia could’ve taken MH370 without the U.S. observing it. (And yes, I realize this is an absence-of-evidence argument too.)
Thus, in assessing The Taking of MH370, all I can say is that it is both fascinating and maddening. Fascinating for guiding readers through the weirdness of the data and evidence that all must use to come to a conclusion about MH370’s fate. Maddening because it lands on an explanation that, without direct evidence in its favor, grounds the event in malign human action. I don’t like the Russian government any more than Wise, but I don’t think they’re farsighted and competent enough to pull off this complex a con. Of course, the reason why conspiracy theories are so powerful is because they make tragedy explicable and therefore meaningful.
But what if the fact is simply that anomalies happen and reality is weird?
Jeff Wise, The Taking of MH370 (The Yellow Cabin Press, 2019).
P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.