It's the greatest aviation mystery in the world.
Five years after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing somewhere over the wild seas of the southern Indian Ocean, we're none the wiser as to what happened.
Former Christchurch man Paul Weeks, 38, was one of 239 people on board the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Ximin Wang, 50, from Auckland was also onboard.
Why, on the night of March 8, 2014, did the aircraft suddenly U-turn and zig-zag up the Straits of Malacca?
Was it an elaborate murder-suicide by a rogue pilot? A terrible accident such as onboard fire, rapid decompression or systems failure? A terrorist hijacking gone wrong? Or something else entirely?
A new book, "The Hunt for MH370", by Ean Higgins, a journalist for "The Australian", draws on years of interviews with aviation experts, victims' families, air crash investigators and professional hunters across land, seas and sky.
In the extracts below, Higgins takes us inside the saga from the major players' perspectives, in a series of theories.
A rogue pilot to the end
A couple of minutes before signing off with "Good night, Malaysian Three Seven Zero" MH370 pilot-in-command Zaharie Ahmad Shah sent his co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid out of the cockpit on an errand.
"Hamid, would you mind getting me a cup of coffee while I attend to some paperwork? Many thanks."
Zaharie would, as per standard operating procedure, have locked the cockpit door once Fariq was out. But what would not have been SOP was the series of actions Zaharie initiated next.
Zaharie reached to the central console and turned off the secondary radar transponder, making the aircraft vanish from air traffic control screens.
The Malaysian safety investigation report released in July 2018 says the symbol for MH370 dropped off from radar display at 1.20am. "The Malaysian military radar and radar sources from two other countries, namely Vietnam and Thailand, also captured the disappearance of the radar position symbol of MH370," the report says.
At the same time, Zaharie turned off the aircraft's automatic transmission of flight data to ground stations. The report shows the final Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) transmission was made through the MH370 satellite communication system just 13 minutes earlier, at 1.07am.
Then Zaharie took out his flight crew bag, containing a few ostensibly innocuous items of clothing – a jumper, scarf, insulated jacket, light gloves and wool cap. Nothing odd there – Beijing can still be very cold in early March. But then, in what was at that stage a comfortably warm cockpit, Zaharie put those items of clothing on.
Then, Zaharie donned his oxygen mask which had hours of oxygen supply in case of depressurisation or fire. Moments thereafter, Zaharie turned off the electrical circuit for the cabin lights, plunging the passenger cabin into darkness in the middle of a moonless night.
Zaharie then quickly reached up above his head to the upper control console and pressed a button to turn off the cabin pressurisation system, which is run by power from the engines and keeps the air in the cabin at near ground-level pressure.
With the pressurisation turned off, the aircraft went into rapid decompression – this option is available for pilots to deal with an onboard fire by sucking out the smoke and exposing the cabin to the lack of oxygen and cold of high altitudes. Immediately after that, Zaharie took the aircraft off autopilot, and made a brief right-hand turn followed quickly by a sharp but long left-hand turn, turning the aircraft almost 180 degrees back towards Malaysia. The safety investigation report says that at 1.21am, a playback of Malaysian military radar "showed the radar return of MH370 turning right but shortly after, making a constant left turn to heading of 273 degrees".
The Malaysian investigators later determined the turn was too abrupt to have been made on autopilot, and had to have been performed by a pilot with his hands on the yoke manually moving the controls. The turn was so sharp, with such a high angle of bank, that it set off alarms and required Zaharie's full concentration as a highly skilled pilot to accomplish. The turn took two minutes and eight seconds, and Zaharie negotiated his way through it despite an audio bank-angle warning and stick-shaker stall warning.
The rapid combination of Zaharie's actions sent the 238 souls in his charge into mortal fear and in many cases outright panic. The oxygen masks dropped automatically due to the loss of cabin pressure, but the passengers, cabin crew and Fariq were enveloped in darkness, fogginess from rapid decompression and increasing cold. The quick right-left extremely banked turns threw those standing, including the cabin crew and Fariq, off their feet, many crashing into the passengers. The cabin filled with screams of confusion and terror.
Elope by parachute
Zaharie Ahmad Shah had enjoyed several mistresses over the years, but none, he found, came close to Rina. She had long, lustrous hair, a sensuous figure, and looked even younger than her 28 years. Rina came from a family of fishermen on the coast who had done very well and now owned a number of vessels; she had just come into a handsome inheritance. In the meantime, to enjoy life in the big smoke, she had moved to Kuala Lumpur and found work running one of the security scanners at the airport. There she met the dashing airman Zaharie, and fell in love.
The love tryst couple decided on an elaborate plan to elope, and secretly establish a new life in another, obscure but pleasant, Asian country. Zaharie used a criminal connection to acquire two stolen passports – something which is not that hard.
On the evening of March 7, 2014, Zaharie packed his flight crew kit with some extra warm clothing, a very bright waterproof torch, a referee's whistle and his paraglider parachute. If anyone at security asked he'd say – truthfully – that skydiving was his recreational pastime, and he'd heard of a great venue for it, the China GreatSky Skydiving Club at Beijing's Shahe Airport.
In this scenario, as in the one outlined in Theory One, 40 minutes into the flight, having sent his co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid back to get him a cup of coffee, Zaharie did a number of things in quick succession. He put on the warm clothing, turned off the ACARS system and the secondary radar transponder, tripped the circuit for the lights in the passenger cabin, put his oxygen mask on, depressurised the aircraft, and made a quick right-hand turn, immediately followed by a sharp and long highly banked turn to the left.
Zaharie flew the Boeing 777 back over the Malay Peninsula, made a slow right turn just south of Penang, and set the autopilot on a course on Airway N571 up the Straits of Malacca. By this time all the passengers and crew had fallen comatose from hypoxia, or were dead. He turned the cabin lights circuit back on, opened the cockpit door, and stepped over the body of Fariq, into the passenger cabin. Zaharie then systematically but quickly went through the passengers' and crew members' wallets and purses and emptied cash into a waterproof container then into a haversack he'd brought for the purpose – notwithstanding Rina's inheritance, he'd like to do the right thing and contribute financially to their joint future together. At about 2.30am, when he knew he was out of primary radar range, Zaharie returned to the cockpit, took the plane down to 3000 feet and reduced speed. Seeing the lights of the fishing boat he was expecting, just as planned at the precise agreed coordinates, Zaharie made a pass over it, turned a couple of times and lined up for a second pass heading south, setting the autopilot to head for an imaginary waypoint far away in the southern Indian Ocean.
Zaharie put a deflated life jacket on along with his parachute, and slung the haversack with the cash, torch and whistle over his head. He returned to the passenger cabin, and opened one of exit doors just behind the wings, after pushing a lifeless flight attendant who had collapsed there out of the way. He waited until he again saw the lights of the fishing boat approaching, and bailed out.
At the helm of one of her family's fishing boats, Rina had watched the Boeing 777 pass overhead, kept an eye on the strong beam from Zaharie's torch as he descended, and set a heading for it. She saw the beam as Zaharie waved the torch in the water, and heard the whistle. Within 15 minutes the love of her life was safely aboard and in her arms, ready to secretly elope overseas to start a new life, the cash from the inheritance secure in the hold.
Terrorist hijacking gone wrong
The plan of the jihadists was brilliant, or so they thought: take control of a big jetliner, fly it to a Taliban-held airstrip in Afghanistan, and hold the passengers and crew, and the aircraft itself, to ransom. And they knew Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid had just the weakness for a particular temptation to make it work. Zaharie was known to like young, attractive women generally; Fariq had been known to flirt with them on invitations to the cockpit. Days after MH370 disappeared, the Australian television programme "A Current Affair" made headlines internationally showing Fariq getting friendly with South African blondes Jonti Roos and Jaan Maree and an unidentified Malaysia Airlines captain.
So when it came to the MH370 flight, about half an hour after take-off, three passengers – two men and a pretty young woman travelling together – asked a male flight attendant if they could visit the flight deck for a brief photo opportunity. The flight attendant asked permission over the intercom to enter the cockpit, was let in, and said, "Captain, two gentlemen and a young lady have asked to visit the flight deck".
Zaharie inquired, "Is she a good sort?"
"Yes, sir, a real good-looker, la!"
"Fine, 10 minutes from now should be perfect, after we pass IGARI."
Just after Zaharie signed off with "Good night, Malaysian Three Seven Zero", the flight attendant brought the trio of passengers to the cockpit door, and they were let in. Seconds later, the two men and the woman pulled out guns they had reassembled on board made out of plastic with 3D printers and which can escape detection by metal detectors.
"No distress call, captain, do exactly as I say, and no one gets hurt," the hijack leader said.
"Turn off the transponder and the ACARS, then turn this aircraft towards Penang."
Meanwhile, back in the passenger cabin, a fourth hijacker had similarly pulled out a plastic gun, and seized the mobile phones of all the passengers and cabin crew. The lead hijacker was well briefed in aviation and the plan – he ordered the slow right turn onto Airway N571 after Penang, heading in the general direction of Afghanistan.
To throw off any military aircraft which might give chase based on primary radar picking up the aircraft and observing it heading northwest on N571, at 2.45am, when they had calculated MH370 would be out of radar range, the terrorists ordered Zaharie to turn sharp left on a heading of 188 degrees, near due south. The intention was to "jink", or throw any pursuers off the trail by unexpectedly changing course over the area not covered by radar for some minutes, then set a new heading with a right turn towards Afghanistan.
It was all going fine, the hijackers thought. But they had not counted on the pluck and initiative of some of the passengers and crew. One of the passengers, a former army sergeant in an aisle seat, whispered to a well-built individual who knew martial arts on the other side of the aisle. When the hijacker passed by on his patrol up and down the cabin, the sergeant asked the hijacker, "Where are you taking us?"
As the hijacker turned his gun on the sergeant and told him to shut up, the martial-arts instructor jumped to his feet, and grabbed the hijacker in a headlock as the sergeant tried to seize the gun. The gun went off, and the bullet blew a hole in the window, causing rapid decompression. In the struggle the hijacker fell over the seated and strapped-in passengers beside the shattered window and got sucked out of the aircraft, as the oxygen masks dropped.
The cabin turned foggy from the rapid decompression, and as the hijackers in the cockpit turned their attention back towards the cabin upon hearing the shot, Zaharie and Fariq sprang to their feet and grappled with them. Fariq tore the gun from the hand of the woman jihadist, and shot both her and one of the male hijackers dead. But the other male terrorist shot Fariq, grievously wounding him, and killed Zaharie. Fariq got off one last shot before he collapsed, killing the remaining hijacker.
It was all over in seconds. The cockpit of MH370 was awash with blood, with two dead pilots, three dead hijackers, and the cockpit door closed and locked as ordered by the terrorists to prevent any counter-hijack attempt. MH370, with the autopilot set on the track south, well away from ay mobile phone coverage, flew on.
After 12 minutes, the chemically generated oxygen ran out for those passengers who had got their oxygen masks on. A couple of flight attendants had reached the portable oxygen bottles, but after a time they too ran out. MH370 was a ghost flight, exactly as per the Australian Transport Safety Bureau's theory, crashing down after running out of fuel, but just outside the area searched by only about a nautical mile.
• The Hunt for MH370
Ean Higgins (Pan Macmillan Australia, RRP $37.99)