Book Review: Sylvia Wrigley, The Mystery of Malaysia Flight 370

Indian Ocean, CIA map from Wikipedia Commons
Indian Ocean, CIA map from Wikipedia Commons

The tragic loss of a Malaysian Flight 370, which was traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014 with over 200 passengers, has obsessed people around the world. Sylvia Wrigley, who is a professional pilot, has written a careful study of the disappearance, based on what is now known. In her forward, she says that she “purposely wanted this book to be accessible to my mother and the cleaning lady at the office, to people who were extremely interested in understanding the situation but lacked the aviation background and experience to be able to make sense of all the contradictory reports, especially with the media rush to present half-truths as fact.”  What is remarkable is that a book as factual and reasoned as this work could be written in such a short period of time. This book provides a much-needed balance to some of the wilder material available in the press and other venues.

Wrigley’s first chapter is titled “Just the Facts,” which captures her number and detail-focused style. She quickly describes the airport from which the flight departed, the history of Malaysian Airlines, the characteristics of the Boeing 777, the passengers and crew, and the known history of the flight in detail. The early part of the flight was completely ordinary. At a few points the quantity of detail can slow the narrative, such as the transcripts of Malaysian Airlines 370’s conversations with the ground crew. Given how few facts are known with certainty, however, this evidence is important. Wrigley’s familiarity with airline equipment -such as ACARS- allows her to describe the history and function of key technologies in a manner that allows us to better understand how truly strange events were to become on this flight.

Just as Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was about to enter Vietnamese air space, it disappeared. At 1:21

"Royal Thai Navy" by Sujin Jetkasettakorn at
“Royal Thai Navy” by Sujin Jetkasettakorn at

(Malaysian Standard Time) the plane’s transponder stopped operating, either because someone deliberately shut it off, or because there was a mechanical failure. This was under one hour into the flight. Vietnamese operators realized that the flight was not following its predicted path, and contacted Malaysian airlines to say that they had not made contact with the plane. Nearly an hour after the flight was supposed to arrive in Beijing, Malaysian Airlines announced that the flight was missing. At first people believed that the flight might have crashed into the Gulf of Thailand, and search and rescue operations focused on this area.

As researchers began to investigate, they learned that two Iranians were traveling on board with stolen passports. Further investigation failed to find any evidence that they were involved with terrorism, and they appeared to have been trying to start a new life in Germany. Malaysia had not checked the men’s passports against an INTERPOL database of stolen passports, which was only one of many mistakes by Malaysian authorities as events unfolded. Indeed, Wrigley is highly critical of the Malaysian government, which appears to have mishandled several key aspects of the investigation.

Wrigley skillfully describes the reasons why it seems unlikely that the flight crew was involved. At the same time, as the investigation continued it came to seem increasingly likely that the flight had been intentionally diverted. This led to widespread speculation, especially after it became clear that Malaysian military radar had picked up the flight, but failed to investigate it. Was there a conspiracy or a coverup? Because the flight at one point was traveling west, people even wondered if it could have been diverted to the Andaman islands, either because the passengers were being kidnapped, or the plane was being stolen.

"Raging Sea" by Evgeni Dinev at
“Raging Sea” by Evgeni Dinev at

The strongest part of the book is Wrigley’s detailed analysis of different scenarios for what happened to the missing flight. These analyses are paired with detailed histories of airline accidents and hijackings, which help to separate the plausible from the fanciful. Wrigley’s careful discussion is necessary, given the incredible hypotheses that have been put forward, as she describes: “I wasn’t going to get into this, but according to a recent telephone survey of 1,000 adults in the US performed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, 5% of US Americans stated they believed that the disappearance of Malaysia flight 370 was linked to supernatural or alien activity.” Wrigley’s work is a good antidote to this speculation. Indeed, by the time the reader has finished her overview of all of the scenarios, every one of them seems improbably. But it is clear that something incredible must, in fact, have taken place. Based on satellite data it became clear that plane flew deep into the Indian ocean, perhaps to the limit of its fuel, then crashed into the ocean somewhere to the west of Australia.

At times, this section of the book can be understandably dark, as Wrigley discusses the history of pilot suicides, equipment failures and human error that have led to one aviation disaster after another. This is not material for people who are afraid to fly.  For airline buffs, people interested in complex systems, or those intrigued by mysteries, however, this section will be fascinating. She also spends a great deal of time discussing the challenges with locating the black box. The Indian ocean is the third largest body of water on earth, and the ocean floor can have trenches and ridges. Still, in the end she is optimistic the flight data recorder will be retrieved, although she does make the point that there is also the possibility that if they are ever found, it may turn out that they were deliberately disarmed. This may have been the case with Silk Air flight 185, which a pilot may have deliberately crashed in southern Sumatra, Indonesia.

To me, the most likely scenario for the flight was that there was a hijacking, especially given that evidence has emerged that the pilots had invited people (a South African woman) up to the flight deck in the past, thus undermining security. How else could the flight transponder have been turned off and the flight path changed, unless the pilots were involved? But Wrigley points out a number of problems with this hypothesis, including that nobody has claimed responsibility. What, exactly, would have been the point? If it was deliberate, it almost seems as if the only reason was to create a mystery. There are many other possibilities (a slow decompression, a fire) all of which have their strengths and weaknesses as theories.

Wrigley’s work is clearly written, and reveals her deep expertise in the area. She does not make a convincing argument for any single scenario, but that is not the point. Rather, she places the mystery in the broader context of aviation history, and provides the reader with a thorough understanding of relevant aviation facts. Almost every reader of this book is likely to have their own theory of what took place, and they will likely be a little less confident in their thesis after reading this work.

How is it possible for an entire plane the size of a Boeing 777 to disappear? In this age of pervasive surveillance, it seems impossible that we still haven’t found a piece of wreckage, a single eye-witness, or some other evidence. As others have noted, this is the greatest aviation mystery since Amelia Earhart. Wrigley’s book, which is available on Kindle through Amazon, is an engaging read which will satisfy those interested in aviation and mysteries. Let us hope, however, that the people fighting fatigue, weather and frustration in the Indian Ocean have success, and bring answers to the families. Australia is now heading the search to the west of Perth. There were pings recorded April 6th through the 8th in this region; they likely came from the data recorders, which means that it should still be possible to solve this mystery.

Interested in learning about more global mysteries? Click here. Or if you want to read about a maritime mystery, please read my blog post about the ghost ship called the Baltimore, which was found anchored in a harbor in what is now Nova Scotia in 1735.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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