in Kulturkampf

The Lost Horizon Hypothesis: Did Xinjiang Separatists Hijack Flight MH370? (UPDATE)

UPDATE: Scrutiny of the pilots of Flight MH370 has intensified, but nothing so far disproves the Lost Horizon hypothesis, not even a homemade flight simulator. To my mind, the clarified timeline of events supports a scenario in which the pilots acted under duress and according to instructions from a hijacker. From the Associated Press:

Authorities have said someone on board the plane first disabled one of its communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS — about 40 minutes after takeoff. The ACARS equipment sends information about the jet’s engines and other data to the airline.

Around 14 minutes later, the transponder that identifies the plane to commercial radar systems was also shut down. The fact that both systems went dark separately offered strong evidence that the plane’s disappearance was deliberate.

On Sunday, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference that that the final, reassuring words from the cockpit — “All right, good night” — were spoken to air traffic controllers after the ACARS system was shut off. Whoever spoke did not mention any trouble on board.

As I said yesterday, a credible threat made to the crew along with detailed instructions is sufficient to explain this sequence. After the plane leveled off and people began to move about the cabin, say about thirty minutes into the flight, our notional hijacker passed his first note to the cockpit. This person may have demonstrated awareness of the plane’s signaling systems, say by allowing the flight attendant to see their laptop screen. When the first specific demands — “turn off the ACARS and follow this course or I will blow up the plane” — were met, a second note may have instructed them further.

Were the pilots acting under a hijacker’s warning? It isn’t hard to imagine someone claiming to be able to hear the pilots and warning them to be tight-lipped. It isn’t hard to imagine a second note with instructions to deactivate the transponder, a third note to fly out over the Strait of Malacca, and a fourth note to turn North or South over the Indian Ocean. Of course, this is all entirely speculative, but so is a suicide run by the pilots. We still have zero proof for that hypothesis, either. The only solid lead we have is some engine telemetry pings that draw a red arc over open ocean and Western China.

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ORIGINAL POST: In 1971, D.B. Cooper hijacked a commercial airliner by passing a note to the flight attendant. At this hour, there is no reason to suspect that the pilots of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 directed the evasive maneuvers and complex flight plan that made the Boeing 777-300 vanish out of some bizarre need to disappear with their plane. Friends and family of the crew reject the idea. I find this theory unlikely, and probably a waste of time, because there are several scenarios in which the crew may have flown the plane under some kind of duress. 

But no one hijacks a plane without some purpose, so whoever was in control of the plane as it disappeared in the direction of vast, deep waters must have had a plan. Right now, that plan seems to have continued along two possible axes, as seen in the map above, and would have required at least one more change of vector over the Indian Ocean.

Why make an airplane disappear? If the objective was to create terror, then perhaps the mystery itself is supposed to terrify us. Perhaps someone meticulously planned the operation — down to the details of disabling the transponder and formulating a flight plan that avoided civilian radar — so that finding the answer to the mystery would be impossible, or at least incredibly difficult. If true, then a lack of answers and an empty ocean are supposed to be what terrifies us. But I don’t think that is what has happened.

Of the two possible flight paths for Flight MH370, the Southern one takes us in the most tragic direction, but not the most likely one. That is only my opinion, submitted for what it is worth, but I am not alone in suggesting this scenario. At Slate, Jeff Wise makes a good argument for the Northern route:

(T)here are only two kinds of place along the southern arc: ocean and small islands. (There is also a swath of western Java, but it’s short enough that I’ll just go ahead and ignore it.)

As for the first, I find it impossible to imagine that MH370 landed on a small island without being noticed.

As for the second, I find it impossible to reconcile with my understanding of human nature that someone would commandeer a plane, maneuver it skillfully and with great imagination through a well-monitored zone of radar coverage, fly for eight hours, and then just go pffft in the middle of an ocean. To believe this scenario, I think you would have to overlook for me what has become a bedrock assumption about this case: that whoever carried it out is extremely intelligent, daring, dedicated, and brave. (Not words you’re supposed to apply to a bad guy, but neither his motives or the nature of his deeds has yet been established, so I’ll let them stand for now.)

Once lost to radar over open sea, the plane may have turned again in any direction, reaching airstrips that have so far gone unexamined while avoiding detection. Incredible as it may seem, even highly-contested areas along the Himalayan axis are rather porous, and rarely under radar surveillance, precisely because they are mountainous and thinly-inhabited. Someone who knows the electronic geography could easily plan a route North that avoids detection.

We know that the engines continued to operate for up to seven hours, after which the jet might have landed on any strip at least one mile long. Xinjiang Province is a vast, mostly empty territory, but a skillful pilot could probably land a plane safely in the flat, open deserts of Western China. Alternately, an unskilled pilot could easily crash a jetliner across a desert floor where it could remain undiscovered for years.

Either way, Xinjiang separatism makes perfect sense as an explanation for the disappearance of Flight MH370. Violent Islamic extremist activity has increased lately, escalating to highly-organized attacks across China that have been more frequent and much more vicious than before.

BEIJING—A mass knife attack at a train station that left 33 dead over the weekend signaled Chinese authorities are facing a significant escalation of a long-simmering separatist movement.

Saturday’s assault marked the second time in a little over four months that Chinese authorities say separatists from the Xinjiang region—which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and former Soviet Central Asia—have carried out a relatively complex and carefully planned attack outside their home territory.

At least 10 assailants armed with long knives and dressed in black stormed through a crowded train station Saturday night in the southwestern city of Kunming, slashing people at random, according to state media. Police shot and killed four assailants, arrested one, and were searching for five others, state media said. Thirty-three died, including the attackers, and at least 130 were injured.

It was the deadliest attack ever attributed to Xinjiang separatists outside their home territory and marks a departure in tactics.

Most of the passengers were (are?) Chinese, so as a mere matter of percentages any hijacker on the flight is most likely carrying a Chinese passport. Of course, I have no proof that Islamic Xinjiang separatists hijacked Flight MH370, but the establishment of a Western Chinese connection to the disappearance — or the reappearance of the aircraft in Xinjiang — would drastically change the complexion of the story.

It would remove the investigative onus from Malaysia and put it squarely on the Chinese regime. It would also bring new attention to the brewing conflict over Xinjiang, embarrassing the Chinese regime in world news headlines — which might just be the point of all this, after all. Terrorism almost always has political objectives; this is but one very possible, and helpfully simple, explanation for our week-old mystery. I call it the Lost Horizon hypothesis in honor of Frank Capra’s 1937 classic film about an airplane forced to land in a hidden valley utopia. Let’s hope that the story of Flight MH370 has a happier ending than Capra’s.

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