Aviation experts believe they may have solved the mystery of the disappearance of flight MH370, saying the 239 passengers and crew were the victims of a deliberate, criminal act carried out by the plane’s captain.
The fate of the Boeing 777 has mystified investigators ever since it went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in 2014.
However, a panel of experts assembled for the Australian TV programme 60 Minutes says the evidence suggests Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah executed a careful series of manoeuvres to evade detection and ensure the plane disappeared in a remote location.
Martin Dolan, former head of the Australia Transport Safety Bureau, who led the two-year search for the missing plane, said: “This was planned, this was deliberate, and it was done over an extended period of time.”
The plane was presumed to have flown on autopilot before running out of fuel and plunging into the southern Indian Ocean. However, the wreckage has never been found and the search was suspended in January last year.
The panel suggested a more gradual descent could mean the search was concentrated in the wrong area and that the plane could still be found largely intact.
Simon Hardy, a Boeing 777 instructor, said Captain Zaharie avoided detection by flying a careful course along the winding border between Malaysian and Thai air space, crossing in and out of radar cover on either side.
“So both of the controllers aren’t bothered about this mysterious aircraft. Cause it’s, ‘Oh, it's gone. It’s not in our space any more,’” he told the programme, which was broadcast on Sunday.
“If you were commissioning me to do this operation and try and make a 777 disappear, I would do exactly the same thing.”
He also pointed out the Malaysian captain had made an unexplained turn to fly over his home town of Penang.
“Somebody was looking out the window, It might be a long, emotional goodbye or a short, emotional goodbye to his home town,” he said.
Larry Vance, a veteran air crash investigator, told the programme the public could be confident in a growing consensus about the plane’s final moments and that the pilot was intent on killing himself.
“Unfortunately, he was killing everybody else on board, and he did it deliberately,” he added.
Theories about the plane's disappearance being due to a “rogue pilot” emerged soon after the tragedy.
Malaysian officials said they believed the plane went missing after a “deliberate act” and confirmed the last words heard from the cockpit were "good night Malaysian three seven zero".
It’s unknown whether the sentence was spoken by Captain Zaharie or the co-pilot, 27-year-old Fariq Abdul Hamid.
However no conclusive evidence has ever been found that one or both of the pilots deliberately steered the aircraft into the ocean.
An initial interim report into the mystery in 2015 looked closely at Captain Zaharie’s background and behaviour in the lead-up to the flight, but found his “ability to handle stress at work and home was good”.
The report also stated: “There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability. There were no significant changes in his lifestyle, interpersonal conflict or family stresses.”
Captain Zaharie's wife, Faizah Hanun, was questioned a number of times by the FBI and Malaysian police about her husband’s state of mind leading up to the flight.
The pair were reported to have split-up before the crash, although they were still living under the same roof in Kuala Lumpur.
Speculation that Captain Zaharie may have brought the plane down as part of an elaborate insurance scam as also ruled out by the report, which found “no record of him having secured a life insurance policy."
Footage of the pilots and crew preparing to board the missing Boeing 777 again showed no untoward signs, with them appearing "well groomed and attired".
On Zaharie's behaviour investigators concluded: “The gait, posture, facial expressions and mannerism were his normal characteristics."
MH370 lost contact with Malaysian Airlines less than an hour after it took of from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12.41am on 8 March 2014. No distress signal or communication was sent after it disappeared.
The plane’s transponder, the instrument that communicates with ground radar, appeared to be shut down as it crossed from Malaysian to Vietnamese airspace over the South China Sea.
Initial investigations suggested the plane came down in the Indian Ocean south west of Australia, well out of its designated flight path.
When it went down the plane was carrying 12 Malaysian crew members and 227 passengers, including seven children.
The majority of those on board were Chinese and Malaysians but it was also carrying passengers from Iran, America, Canada, Indonesia, Australia, India, France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands.
Malaysia Airlines said four passengers who checked in for the flight did not show up at the airport on the day.
‘Most expensive search in history’
The search for MH370 is thought to be the most expensive ever conducted.
The mystery over its last location has lead to a vast search area of nearly three million square miles being designated.
Since then Malaysian, Australian and Chinese teams have carried out underwater searches spanning 46,000 square miles in the southern Indian Ocean and found nothing.
Debris from MH370 has washed up in beaches along the coastline of Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, Reunion Island and Mauritius. This has been attributed to the strength of the ocean’s currents rather than giving any clues as to MH370’s final resting place.
A report released by the Australian search agency in December advised that if the plane was not found in the existing zone it was most likely to be in a 9,653 square-mile to the north.
But after spending an estimated at £90 million, the three countries decided to wind down the investigation earlier this year.
The decision was met with dismay from the families' official support group, Voice 370. In a statement it said: “In our view, extending the search to the new area defined by the experts is an inescapable duty owed to the flying public in the interest of aviation safety.”