A single ship continued a lonely search last week across a vast expanse of the southern Indian Ocean for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared nearly 10 months ago — no longer listening for “pings” from the black box or subject to around-the-clock coverage by CNN or accompanied by a massive flotilla that once included the U.S. 7th Fleet and helped make it the largest and most expensive search in aviation history.
The search has covered 1.8 million square miles of ocean surface and scanned more than 4,247 square miles of the Indian Ocean floor — an area about the size of the Chesapeake Bay — without finding a trace of wreckage from Flight 370.
Much of the world has moved on as the months passed since the Boeing 777 mysteriously vanished March 8 in flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard. But the families of the missing crew and passengers still mourn, hold out hope and sometimes seethe over the fruitless search for their loved ones.
About 30 family members, most of them senior citizens, protested last week outside the foreign ministry in Beijing, demanding answers from Chinese officials whom they accused of withholding information.
“My son is alive, and I want to know what the government is doing to find him,” Liu Dianyun, the mother of one of the passengers, told Agence France-Presse.
About two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese.
Some of the protesters drove two hours to attend the demonstration, despite acknowledging that Chinese officials likely would ignore their pleas.
Dozens of relatives of Chinese passengers from the missing jetliner reportedly were beaten and arrested this year.
Sarah Bajc, the girlfriend of Philip Wood, one of three Americans on Flight 370, joined other loved ones to raise about $100,000 and hire a private investigation agency to look into the disappearance of the plane.
“We don’t know why or what is being covered up, but something is being covered up,” Ms. Bajc, 48, told NBC News in Kuala Lumpur.
Ms. Bajc and Mr. Wood, a 50-year-old IBM executive, planned to live together in Malaysia. She was in Beijing waiting for Flight 370 when it vanished.
“I think it’s a very real possibility that Philip is still alive because there is no proof that he’s dead. And so I will continue to push to find proof, one way or the other and at some point in time, if a body is brought to me or even confirmed wreckage of the airplane, then I will acquiesce to the fact that he’s not coming back,” she said. “But until then, I will continue to push and many, many family members feel the same.”
More than 5,000 miles away, the tug supply vessel GO Phoenix was the sole ship conducting underwater search operations in the Indian Ocean after two other vessels in the Australian-led effort headed for port.
The Fugro Equator left the search area after completing its phase of the survey, and the Fugro Discovery suspended its activities to repair malfunctioning search equipment, according to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
The bureau has begun working on a drift model to reflect a wider area where debris might be found. The agency expects to have covered the entire search area by about May.
Doubts have persisted about whether the crews are searching in the right place, though officials insist satellite data — the “handshake” from hourly satellite communications with the plane — indicate that Flight 370 flew south for five hours before likely running out of fuel and plunging into the Indian Ocean.
Oceanographers involved in the search are convinced the “pings” detected deep in the Indian Ocean a month after the plane disappeared — the most promising clue yet in the search — were not from the black box flight data recorder. The scientists suspect the noise instead came from another man-made source, likely the ships towing the pinger locators.
The searchers haven’t heard a “ping” since then. The batteries for the pingers would have long since died.
The official version of where the plane likely went down also has been challenged by Timothy Clark, president of Dubai’s Emirates Airline, which operates 130 Boeing 777s, the most of any airline.
“They still haven’t found a trace, not even a seat cushion,” Mr. Clark said in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel. “Our experience tells us that in water incidents, where the aircraft has gone down, there is always something. We have not seen a single thing that suggests categorically that this aircraft is where they say it is, apart from this so-called electronic satellite ‘handshake,’ which I question as well.
“There hasn’t been one overwater incident in the history of civil aviation — apart from Amelia Earhart in 1939 — that has not been at least 5 or 10 percent trackable. But MH370 has simply disappeared,” he said. “For me, that raises a degree of suspicion. I’m totally dissatisfied with what has been coming out of all of this.”
Mr. Clark, who was knighted this year for his service to British prosperity and the aviation industry, is hardly a conspiracy kook, but his skepticism about the official version has helped fuel some of the far-flung theories.
Popular explanations for what happened to the missing jetliner have included terrorist hijackers, a CIA plot and an alien abduction.
One theory is that terrorists hijacked the plane and landed it in a small Afghan village, where the crew and passengers currently live in mud huts with almost no food.
Several conspiracy blog sites have suggested that Flight 370 actually crashed July 17 in eastern Ukraine, not the scheduled Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur believed to have been shot down in the conflict between government forces and pro-Russia separatists. Proponents of this theory speculate that U.S. agents took the plane to the Diego Garcia Military Base, likely within range of where Flight 370 disappeared, and later crashed near Donetsk to make it appear to have been shot down in an attempt to discredit Russia.
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wrote on a blog post that the CIA and Boeing probably were involved, possibly taking remote control of the airplane. “Certainly not these days with all the powerful communication systems, radio and satellite tracking and filmless cameras which operate almost indefinitely and possess huge storage capacities,” he wrote. “For some reason, the media will not print anything that involves Boeing or the CIA.”
A theory advanced in the book “Flight MH370 — The Mystery” blamed the U.S. and Thai governments for accidentally shooting down the plane during joint military exercises in the South China Sea and then misdirecting the search to hide the deadly mishap.
Others believe Flight 370 was abducted by aliens or taken to another dimension. A CNN/ORC International poll in May found that 9 percent of Americans believe that aliens or beings from another dimension were involved.
Early in the search, CNN anchor Don Lemon explored unexplainable theories in an interview with mystery writer Brad Meltzer.
“People are saying to me, ‘Why aren’t you talking about the possibility?’ And I’m just putting it out there that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding,” said Mr. Lemon.
“People roll their eyes at conspiracy theories, but what conspiracy theories do is they ask the hardest, most outrageous questions sometimes, but every once in a while they’re right,” said Mr. Meltzer. “You can say, ‘Oh, it crashed into the ocean. But where are the parts? Where are the pieces? Why did it keep going for seven hours? Why do you have a guy onboard who gives his watch and his ring to his wife and says, ‘Keep these for my boys in case something happens to me’? And that’s not some stranger, he was a mechanical engineer. Something smells wrong.”
He continued: “I’m not one of those believers that aliens came down or anything like that. But you do have to stop and wonder: How does a jetliner with 200 people on it just disappear?”