What Netflix’s Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Documentary Gets Wrong
Netflix docuseries MH370: The Plane That Disappeared gives conspiracy and theory equal weight.
We will likely never know what really happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The Boeing 777 plane that captivated the world by disappearing first took off from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:42 a.m. local time on Saturday, March 8, 2014. The flight, known as MH370 under the Malaysian Airlines code, was supposed to arrive at the Beijing Capital International Airport around 6:30 a.m. but disappeared from radar at 1:21 a.m.
What followed was one of the most extensive search operations in history. The Malaysian government immediately launched a flawed investigation on the ground. The Australian government, which has superior naval investigative resources, led the search from the sea. Eventually, private companies and several other nations would also enter the fray with the singular purpose of finding any trace that MH370 left behind.
Unfortunately, it was all for naught. Aside from having a rough idea where the plane crashed in the southern Indian Ocean and the recovery of some wreckage on the islands of Réunion and Madagascar, the ultimate reason for MH370’s diverted flight path and subsequent crash remain officially unknown. At this point, the plane’s “black box” is unlikely to ever be found and if it is, the data it contains won’t be particularly useful.
The seemingly permanent disappearance of MH370 is a tragedy because the loved ones of its 239 occupants will likely never receive the closure they deserve. It’s also a tragedy because, in the absence of certainty regarding any particular subject, the ugly specter of unfound conspiracy can leak its way into the narrative.
Enter Netflix‘s latest ill-advised attempt at crafting a buzzworthy three-episode docuseries – MH370: The Plane That Disappeared. This doc, directed by Louise Malkinson, commits the sin of pretending that all theories deserve equal time and equal weight. While it’s true that MH370’s disappearance lacks any definitive answer, that doesn’t mean that every attempt at explaining its disappearance is created equally. Some explanations are quite simply far more likely than others.
MH370: The Plane That Disappeared does its viewers a disservice by presenting three different theories of the plane’s crash that range from “possible” to “completely batshit” while never properly clarifying what is supported by proper evidence and what isn’t. The doc wisely opens with the most plausible theory – that of pilot murder/suicide. But in episode two, “The Hijack,” it enters into the realm of the speculative with an ill-supported theory involving the Russian government. By episode three, “The Intercept,” it is in full on Ancient Aliens territory by presenting a conspiracy that the American government destroyed the flight so that the Chinese couldn’t have some toys.
If that final theory sounds a bit specious to you, then congratulations: you process reality in a more discerning fashion than a Netflix documentary. While it’s hard to say that MH370: The Plane That Disappeared is acting in bad faith (its first episode is quite good and its second episode at least makes an attempt to support the implausible with evidence), it does allow its subjects to omit and misrepresent a lot of the MH370 story. With that in mind, we thought you might appreciate this rundown of elements that Netflix’s MH370 doc leaves out or doesn’t quite get right.
NOTE: We are drawing from several sources here, but the chief document we’re using is The Atlantic’s “What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane,” written by William Langewiesche and originally published in the July 2019 issue as “‘Good Night. Malaysian Three-Seven-Zero.’” It’s by far the most complete and engaging article regarding Malaysian Airlines 370.
Malaysian Government Corruption Was a Big Problem
As previously stated, MH370: The Plane That Disappeared‘s first episode, “The Pilot,” is on mostly solid factual ground. This episode unfolds the most popular and evidentially supported theory: that Malaysian Airlines 370 pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah seized control of the plane from his inexperienced co-pilot and flew it off-course in a deliberate act of multiple murder/suicide.
The episode runs through the details quite well but it fails to properly communicate one important element that created an opening for future conspiracy theories to flourish. That fact being that the Malaysian government tasked with investigating this unprecedented aviation event was corrupt, self-defensive, and slow to provide useful data.
To a certain extent, all governments of the world are corrupt. When politics are involved, no one can ever be certain that government officials won’t immediately try to save their own ass instead of properly investigate a tragedy. We see Chinese citizens frustration with the Malaysian government play out in the documentary (most of the victims of the crash were Chinese) but truthfully pretty much everyone involved with the subsequent search found themselves frustrated with Malaysian officials as well.
Malaysia lied early and often throughout the MH370 investigation. It wasn’t necessarily because it had anything to hide but rather that reflexively obfuscating the truth is doctrine for autocratic political systems built on cronyism.
William Langewiesche, writer of the aforementioned Atlantic piece, quotes a close observer of Malaysia’s response as saying: “It became clear that the primary objective of the Malaysians was to make the subject just go away. From the start there was this instinctive bias against being open and transparent, not because they were hiding some deep, dark secret, but because they did not know where the truth really lay, and they were afraid that something might come out that would be embarrassing. Were they covering up? Yes. They were covering up for the unknown.”
Early on, British private satellite company Inmarsat realized that MH370 had diverted severely from its planned flight plan, sharply turning west and then pulling a U-Turn after crossing into Vietnamese airspace rather than continuing north. Malaysia was aware of this fact through data from its own military radar but did not publicly admit to it until a week after the crash. For seven precious days, searchers were looking for the plane the wrong part of the ocean.
Once the first round of searches for flight 370 had failed, Malaysia conducted its own investigation into the passengers of crew. Per the Atlantic piece, the secret report (that was only revealed when leaked) significantly held back on revealing everything that was known about Captain Zaharie.
There is More Evidence of Captain Zaharie’s Involvement
Several interviewees throughout MH370: The Plane That Disappeared note that it’s not fair to blame Zaharie Ahmad Shah for the plane’s disappearance since we don’t know, and likely will never know, the full circumstances of what happened for sure. This a noble impulse. There’s no reason to besmirch the name of the dead when we don’t have to. Unfortunately, even though Zaharie is not here to defend his name, much of the best evidence in this story points to his involvement. In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence that the docuseries leaves out when discussing the 53-year-old pilot.
Though Intan Othman, the wife of a MH370 crewmember, and Fuad Sharuji, former crisis manager of Malaysia Airlines, both report in the documentary that Zaharie was polite, sensible, and would not have done something like this, Langewiesche uncovered some divergent reports in the Atlantic article. The writer says that many people he interviewed in Kuala Lumpur found Zaharie to be “lonely” and “sad.” Estranged from his wife and distanced from his adult children, he would occasionally tell friends that he “spent a lot of time pacing empty rooms waiting for the days between flights to go by.”
Even one of Zaharie’s lifelong friends and a fellow Boeing 777 pilot reluctantly came to the conclusion that he was guilty. Per Langewiesche, Zaharie’s unnamed friend said: “Zaharie’s marriage was bad. In the past he slept with some of the flight attendants. And so what? We all do. You’re flying all over the world with these beautiful girls in the back. But his wife knew.”
In episode 2 of the docuseries, several interviewees cast doubts upon the details of Zaharie’s flight simulator that appear to take a near identical route to MH370’s final swan song. But per investigators, the route was the only one that Zaharie took time to examine in multiple stages, experimenting with the proper amount of fuel. One expert even wonders if the pilot was deliberately leaving it as breadcrumbs for eventual investigators.
If Zaharie were posthumously facing criminal charges for the murder of 239 people, I suspect he would be acquitted, or at least I hope he would be. There isn’t enough evidence here to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a legal sense. But in the simple search for answers, the theory that he deliberately crashed the plane is by far the most plausible and evidence-supported option we have. And MH370: The Plane That Disappeared makes that quite clear with the nonsense it indulges in its next two episodes.
Jeff Wise’s Russian Hijacking Theory Doesn’t Hold Up
After a mostly straightforward and fact-based first episode, MH370: The Plane That Disappeared goes off the rails a bit in “The Hijack.” This 45-minute installment features several interviews with sources who question the most popular theory behind the plane’s disappearance.
By episode’s end, aviation journalist Jeff Wise shares the full details of his theory that the plane was hijacked by Russian nationals. To be fair to Wise, he is careful in asserting that it is only a theory and he cannot be certain of its veracity unless more information comes out. Still, as we said in the introduction, not all theories are created equal. Wise’s Russian hijacking hypothetical simply has many more holes in it than the Zaharie theory.
The sticking point for Wise is that the Inmarsat satellite data reveals that the plane’s electrical systems (and therefore tracking mechanisms) were re-engaged only after it had made a hard left to deviate from its original flight path. Rather than chocking this up to the most likely option (the pilot turned it off, then on), Wise says it must have been a deliberate act from an antagonistic actor aboard the plane who wanted to create a false record of vessel veering left. Wise asserts that these villains accessed the plane’s electrical system under a hatch located between the cockpit and first class.
While the presence of a secret control room in a plane’s cabin isn’t ideal (and is something that’s been eliminated from subsequent Boeing models), the details of this theory really don’t make much sense. For starters, all passengers aboard MH370 were subsequently cleared of terrorism or adversarial government ties by both Malaysian and American authorities. The extent of Wise’s suspicion in the three Russian passengers aboard the flight begins and ends with the fact that they’re Russian.
Additionally, the electrical system underneath the cabin is not only tremendously complex but also quite conspicuous. It’s hard to imagine a plane full of 239 people watching some guy crawling into a hole in front of first class and then just kind of letting him do his thing. And even if a bad actor successfully used the electronics bay to “spoof” the position of the plane as being further west than it was, someone would still have to break through the heavily fortified cockpit to incapacitate two pilots and maneuver the plane north.
Russia’s motivation in this matter also makes little sense. Wise theorizes that agents of the Russian state hijacked the plane to distract the Western world from its invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. But Russia’s invasion of Crimea was going pretty well for them! Russian troops had already entered the Peninsula and raised Russian flags over municipal buildings by Feb. 27 of 2014. The Ukrainian government was essentially brand new coming off of a cultural revolution and in no place to effectively resist. Meanwhile the United States declined to send Ukraine lethal assistance and the whole thing was over rather quickly. This wasn’t like Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine which sought to topple a democratically-elected (and popular) government that was immediately met with fierce resistance.
Above all else, however, the technological points of Wise’s theory don’t hold up … or at least they don’t according to Langewiesche. It’s all quite technical so we’re in “dude, trust me” territory here but Langewiesche writes: ” … control of the plane was not seized remotely from within the electrical-equipment bay, a space under the forward galley. Pages could be spent explaining why. Control was seized from within the cockpit. This happened in the 20-minute period from 1:01 a.m., when the airplane leveled at 35,000 feet, to 1:21 a.m., when it disappeared from secondary radar.”
The Recovered MH370 Debris Is Legitimate
The theory of a Russian hijacking presented by Wise in the docuseries’ faces another big hurdle for credibility: the recovery of debris from MH370 on the southern African coast and several islands in the Indian Ocean. If parts of MH370 did indeed turn up roughly where the data indicated they should turn up then how could the plane have traveled to Kazakhstan air space like the Russian theory posits?
To get around this hurdle, Wise and a handful of other MH370 theorists question the credibility of the debris and the individual who found much of it. As MH370: The Plane That Disappeared recounts, eccentric American and so-described “wreck-hunter” Blaine Gibson is the man who discovered a significant amount of flight 370 wreckage. Using some rudimentary math and extrapolations based on the publicly available data, Gibson determined that pieces of the flight would likely be recovered on the coast of one of several islands in the Indian Ocean. Gibson’s determination was ultimately correct as the first bit of material was found on the French island of Réunion just east of Madagascar.
Several of the subjects interviewed in this docuseries view Gibson’s success with suspicion. How could he possibly know where to find the wreckage unless he helped plant it there with the blessing of the Russian government? What that question ignores, however, is that Gibson was not responsible for finding the first bit of wreckage, or even the majority of the wreckage. That first bit of debris was discovered on Réunion by Johnny Bègue, the foreman of a beach cleanup crew. Gibson didn’t find his first artifact until months later in Mozambique. Ultimately, Gibson has been responsible for finding around one-third of MH370’s debris (as of 2019), which is definitely a lot for one person but is also notably short of 100 percent.
Meanwhile, in episode 3 “The Intercept,” French journalist Florence de Changy asserts that an “ID plate” is missing from the first piece of MH370 debris recovered – the flaperon. de Changy doesn’t offer up any evidence for this beyond pointing at a blank spot on the metal and assuring that “inside sources” assured her something should be there. She also asserts that an ID plate only comes off when a plane is disassembled – as though the cabal of lizard people who captured MH370 carefully abided by FAA regulations when disassembling it. Anywho, no fewer than three pieces with unique identifying number sequences for Flight 370 were recovered within the first three years of its disappearance and a total of 33 pieces have been found overall.
Florence de Changy’s Intercept Theory is Pure Nonsense
Speaking of episode 3 and Florence de Changy, this docuseries really saves its most incoherent bit for last. The second half of “The Intercept” deals with de Changy’s proposal of a so-named theory that posits that the U.S. Military, working in concert with the Australians, Malaysians, and British via a private satellite company, intercepted MH370 to retrieve precious cargo that was intended for their Chinese enemies.
The episode allows de Changy the opportunity to talk about the genesis of this theory from its initial conception all the way through to its final narrative. And it’s actually an unexpectedly useful exercise in understanding how conspiracy thinking can take hold. Every single part of de Changy’s theory begins as an observation or musing that quickly becomes accepted dogma by the time she’s moved on to the next part of it, whether there is meaningful evidence for it or not.
de Changy’s first issue with the “official” story of pilot murder/suicide (which again: is not the “official” story anywhere. It’s just the most likely theory) is that Inmarsat is supposedly the only entity that picked up MH370’s diverged path on radar. Of course, that’s not true. The Malaysian military also picked it up and admitted to doing so one week after the event. But after de Changy summarily dismisses that, she moves onto the next thing with her incorrect “fact” now firmly in place for her larger theory.
The “next thing” for de Changy is wondering why RMAF Butterworth Air Base in the Northwest part of Malaysia did not pick up MH370’s changing flight plan and dispatch fighters to intercept it. Again: RMAF Butterworth Air Base did identify MH370 as an unexpected blip on its radar, it just didn’t pursue it – a fact that the Malaysian government tried to cover up with its one week delay and the careful editing of the accident report that reads they “did not pursue to intercept the aircraft since it was ‘friendly’ and did not pose any threat to national airspace security, integrity and sovereignty.”
de Changy calls the South China Sea is “a highly monitored region of the world” (It’s not). She claims citizen sleuths found surefire evidence of debris in said sea (They did not. Remember how the search centered there for a full week after the flight disappeared and nothing was found?). She says “When you’re a journalist, of course you trust the authorities” (Which just…no).
MH370: The Plane That Disappeared never slows down to let the viewer consider the merits of these claim on their own. It’s an uninterrupted onslaught of misinformation, culminating with the coup de grâce. When de Changy realizes that her “Intercept” theory lacks a proper motive, she takes a glance at MH370’s cargo manifest and discovers that the plane was transporting…lithium ion batteries for walkie-talkies. By the time she launches into her recounting of what could have possibly happened those lithium ion batteries have become “this very mysterious and very suspicious cargo.”
From there all you need to do is have two American planes in Vietnamese airspace equipped with Airborne Warning & Control Systems (AWACs) jam MH370’s communication systems, shoot it out of the sky with missiles (that planes with AWACs don’t usually have), and then convince hundreds of personnel in the scheme across no fewer than four different countries to keep quiet for nine years and counting.
Now, the folks behind MH370: The Plane That Disappeared might argue that they allow for plenty of pushback and rebuttal on de Changy’s theory shortly after she reveals it. That’s fair enough. But de Changy’s theory gets the full benefit of a Netflix documentary budget with slick imagery and an ominous soundtrack while the cooler heads have to come through with just boring old facts. And we know who wins in a facts v. fun fight.
What Happened to Flight MH370?
There’s one thing that MH370: The Plane That Disappeared definitively gets right. All experts, onlookers, and surviving family members interviewed unanimously agree that the disappearance of MH370 was a deliberate act. Someone commandeered the plane and diverted it off-course significantly. There is no room for theories involving accidents.
Ultimately though, there is currently only one theory that makes sense above all others and it’s the one that the docuseries presents in its first episode. Like many other docuseries recently produced by Netflix, there is little reason for MH370: The Plane That Disappeared to be an episodic experience. By even indulging theories lacking evidence, the docuseries at best wastes its viewers’ time and at worst lends legitimacy to corrosive conspiratorial thinking.
In the absence of a definitive answer, it’s only natural to cast about for, let’s say, creative hypotheticals like Russian hijackers or American missiles. After all, Russia literally did shoot down a Malaysian Airlines flight just four months later. That would have seemed quite outlandish if evidence weren’t uncovered to prove it. But the existence of evidence is a pretty important part of the equation.
Pie-in-the-sky conspiracy theories sometimes have their place. That place just isn’t on the premier streaming company’s servers. MH370: The Plane That Disappeared has the most likely explanation for what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. It also has plenty of bullshit to dilute it.
All three episodes of MH370: The Plane That Disappeared are available to stream on Netflix now.