Malaysia Airlines flight MH370: how the search unfolded

Conflicting claims about the missing plane's last position have circulated since it lost contact on Saturday

Live updates on the search

When Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared on a clear Saturday night from radar screens, no one could explain how the Boeing 777 had seemingly vanished into thin air. Four days later, there is far more confusion and misinformation circulating than solid evidence, and the aircraft with 239 people on board is still missing.

Saturday, 8 March

Just hours after the 12.40am flight disappeared, the Malaysia Airlines chief executive, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, said the plane was still in contact with air traffic controllers about two hours into the flight, pinning the last contact at about 2.40am at a point 120 nautical miles off the east coast of Malaysia. But FlightAware, a flight-tracking website, showed the plane climbing to 10,700 metres (35,000ft) before disappearing from records at 1.00am, about 20 minutes after it took off. At 1am, the plane was scheduled to enter Vietnamese air space while flying between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City and did not. No distress signal was issued.

Twelve hours after the plane vanished, search and rescue teams from Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam began looking for debris or wreckage off Vietnam. China and the Philippines soon sent over their own ships and aircraft to help. A few hours later, a Vietnamese admiral told media the aircraft could have crashed in Vietnamese waters near an island – with reports of a giant oil slick and column of smoke emerging. Soon, questions over whether terrorism was involved began circulating after an Italian and an Austrian came forward to say they had not flown on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, despite being listed in the flight's manifest.


Teams from the US began aiding search efforts. Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak, said terrorism was a possibility as authorities began investigating reports that as many as four people on board MH370 may have been using stolen passports. Later that day, a Japan-bound pilot from another Boeing 777 claimed to have made contact with MH370 at 1.30am, minutes before it disappeared, saying he had asked the aircraft if it had entered Vietnamese airspace yet, but received only static and mumbling in return. Vietnam claimed to have found more debris, while the transport minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, told reporters the aircraft may have actually turned back towards Malaysia. Later that day it emerged that the Italian and Austrian men believed to be on board the flight had had their passports stolen in Thailand within the past two years, prompting fears that the men using their passports were terrorists.


Malaysia's aviation chief Aharuddin Abdul Rahman stoked fears of a terrorist plot when he said five passengers had checked in but never boarded the flight. Authorities denied Vietnamese reports that debris had been found, with the oil slick believed to belong to the plane revealed to be from a ship, while the "life raft" spotted off the coast of Vietnam turned out to be a moss-covered cable reel. CCTV footage of the two men travelling on stolen European passports prompted Malaysian officials to describe them as resembling the black Italian striker Mario Balotelli. Razak demanded a review of Kuala Lumpur's security measures.


Malaysia Airlines said the pilots may have tried to turn the plane back towards Malaysia as the country widened its search-and-rescue hunt to include a wider trajectory and more teams. In a bizarre twist, Malaysia's air force chief Tan Sir Rodzali Daud said the plane was detected at 2.40am near Pulau Perak, an island in the Malacca strait – indicating the plane had indeed flown back and was accounted for a whole hour later after it initially disappeared. He would later deny this claim. Earlier fears of terrorism were slightly assuaged as Interpol said that as more information emerged about the men it sounded less and less like terrorism. Interpol named the two as Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, and Delavar Seyed Mohammadreza, 29. Reports suggested they were asylum seekers rather than terrorists.


Daud said the last radar signal from the missing aircraft was received 200 miles north-west of Penang at 2.15am on Saturday – a third potential last sighting. This would put the last signal at 45 minutes after authorities had initially said they lost contact. However, Daud said the data had not been received in real time, so it could have belonged to another aircraft. "I'm not saying this is MH370. We are still corroborating this," he told a press conference. "There is a possibility of the aircraft making a comeback. It remains as a possibility … It is very difficult to say for sure it is the aircraft."

Unconfirmed reports also emerged of Malaysian fishermen spotting what looked like a life raft with the word "Boarding" on it floating off the east coast of Malaysia, although it is believed to have sunk when authorities attempted to bring it back to shore, while the Beijing News claimed that a dead body was seen in the Malacca strait wearing a life vest. There were still no confirmed reports of any sightings of passengers or debris as night fell.


Kate Hodal in Songkhla

The GuardianTramp

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