THE DISAPPEARING ACT
by Florence de Changy (Mudlark £14.99, 432pp)
On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, as it did every evening.
When it crossed over into Vietnamese airspace, the co-pilot said goodbye to Malaysian air traffic control, as is normal, but did not say hello to the Vietnamese equivalent, as is very much not normal. It took everyone a while to realise that MH370 had simply disappeared from sight.
This is harder than it sounds. There are certain tracking devices in every aeroplane that would need to have been switched off, or disabled, for it to vanish — and they had been.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it vanished in 2014. Pictured: The missing aircraft taking off in France in 2011
Vietnamese air traffic control would have to be very sleepy not to notice that a plane that flew over their territory every evening wasn’t there tonight. It took them 17 crucial minutes to do so. Eventually they worked out that the plane, which had been flying roughly north-north-east, had taken a sharp turn and headed off west. And that was the last that was ever heard of it.
It was the first plane to disappear entirely without explanation since Amelia Earhart in 1939.
The case galvanised the world’s media to a fevered flurry of speculation. Had it been hijacked? Had the captain gone mad and run amok? Had there been a fire on board? Who were the two Iranian passengers with fake Austrian and Italian passports? If the plane had crashed, where was the wreckage?
Florence de Changy is a Far-Eastern correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde, and she covered the case in detail. From the beginning she was astonished by the incompetence of the Malaysian authorities, by their blatant disregard for truth and obvious desire not to tell anyone anything of importance.
The details of what happened were reconstituted by trial and error, and ‘assembled like a jigsaw puzzle over subsequent weeks, months and years, in the light of information that was released in dribs and drabs, for the most part diluted in an ocean of false or inaccurate data’.
This is a long book, but there’s no padding. De Changy is a remarkably thorough researcher who clearly became as fixated with the case as any of the MH370 obsessives she met via the internet. People often say that non-fiction books read like fast-moving thrillers, but this one genuinely does.
The Iranian passengers turned out to have bought their forged passports in Thailand. Malaysia Airlines refused, ‘for security reasons’, to explain how travellers with forged passports had been able to buy tickets. Interpol said they were not known terrorists. Apparently Iranians do this all the time, to avoid being identified as Iranian at airports. The lead fizzled out, having been the focus of all the news coverage for 48 hours.
Far-Eastern correspondent for Le Monde, Florence de Changy investigates the mystery in a new tome. Pictured: Catherine Gang, whose husband Li Zhi was on Flight MH370
Next up was the pilot, who became the victim of a concerted smear campaign. One source said he was divorced. Another said his wife and children had moved out of the family home the day before the flight. A third said he was a political fanatic. There were reports that his diary was blank past the date of March 8. All untrue.
‘He was even discovered to have “distant relatives in Pakistan”, as though this alone would make him, if not culpable, at least suspicious.’
Meanwhile, a technology company in London said that the plane’s path could be determined by tracing ‘handshake pings’, silent electromagnetic signals sent to the plane even after they had turned their tracking machines off.
Unfortunately, these ‘pings’ weren’t designed for finding lost planes and no one had done it before. The number-crunching was vast, but the company did the calculations and determined that the plane had actually headed south towards the Indian Ocean.
THE DISAPPEARING ACT by Florence de Changy (Mudlark £14.99, 432pp)
Purely on the basis of this very shaky evidence, a search-and-rescue mission was set up in the Indian Ocean, even though the area to be searched was huge and essentially unsearchable. Australia, the nearest land mass, was in charge. Their window of opportunity was small, as the plane’s black boxes, which emitted their own beeps, would switch off after 30 days. It turned out much later that the battery in one of them had actually died more than a year earlier, and no one had bothered to change it.
The operation was ruinously expensive (£103 million) and an abject failure. Literally nothing was found, not even a seatbelt. ‘When it came to the art of bungling a search operation and providing deliberate or accidental misinformation, Australia ran Malaysia pretty close,’ writes de Changy brutally.
Chunks of dead plane started to turn up on beaches across the region. The best hope was a flaperon (what they now call ailerons), which washed up on the shore of Reunion Island near Madagascar. The French, who were investigating as Reunion is one of theirs, said they were ‘almost certain’ it came from MH370.
The Malaysian prime minister, who came across as slightly shadier than Don Vito Corleone, announced his certainty that it had come from MH370. But the flaperon had lost its ID plate, and they are so securely attached it really shouldn’t have done. De Changy found out that ID plates are routinely removed when airport parts are recycled, so the flaperon could have come from any old plane. She thinks it might even have been planted there.
Why did everyone lie? Because although the Malaysians didn’t actually want the puzzle solved for reasons that will become clear if you read the book, they wanted it to be seen to have been solved, so they could forget about it. France was trying to sell arms to Malaysia, and was happy to oil the wheels. The French report on the mysterious flaperon was never published, needless to say.
You’ll have noticed I haven’t told you what de Changy thinks actually happened, because that would be like giving away the end of a novel. Unlike normal air flights, though, it’s not the destination that matters here, it’s the journey. De Changy writes with great wit and a constant bubbling pool of rage, as well she might. This is a splendid book — and highly recommended.