More than a week has gone by since the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing. It has been a mad few days on the ground reacting to the twists and turns of the story.
Since the news first broke, there have been reports of an oil slick off the coast of Vietnam, identities of the passengers have been questioned, technical analysis of flight communications have been discussed, and a whole spectrum of conspiracy theories and unverified photos have been circulated on the internet.
I attend the daily press conferences with the same keenness that many of our viewers and readers feel as they anxiously follow the story. We are all hoping that the authorities will give us more clues – just tell me what exactly is going on here!
But at the same time that all this has been happening, flights to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur continue to operate. They still follow the same flight path and the same type of aircraft is still being used, with the same departure time at the same airport. The only difference is that it is no longer called the MH370, out of respect for the passengers and crew members on the missing aircraft. It is now called the MH318.
I talked to my editors and we decided that I should take this flight and document events from before take-off until 1.30 a.m. – a time shortly after MH370 was last sighted on civilian radar screens on March 8.
Before taking on the assignment, I asked myself: “will lightning strike twice…?” But of course there was not much time to think. I booked my tickets, took a shower, had a coffee and a chat with my colleagues and then was on my way to the departure hall to board the plane.
At the departure gate, there were a fair few passengers although not enough to fill a whole 777. A number of them were using the benches as beds, catching up on sleep before the overnight flight.
Among them, one Chinese passenger whom I spoke to said that he wasn’t nervous about taking the flight at all. “Life still goes on, work still has to be done. In fact, I believe that what happened to the MH370 may make it an even safer flight for me”.
Other Chinese passengers standing nearby started to chip in. They realised that I was a journalist and began to ask me questions too: “Do you think the authorities are hiding something?” “They must know something that we don’t right?” “Do you think they will find it?” As one asked, all the others looked to me for an answer. It was a stressful moment. I have heard all the conspiracy theories, but my guess about what happened to the plane is just as good as anyone else’s. We have no real clue, and until we do everything is pure speculation.
After passing the queue for security checks I began taking photos like crazy. I really needed a shot that would sum up the experience of boarding this flight. There it was – the Boeing 777-200ER sitting on the tarmac lit by orange sodium-vapour lamps. A view like this was probably the last glimpse of normality that passengers on board the missing MH370 flight had. I took as many pictures as I could before getting on the plane.
Upon entering the cabin seat, I scouted out various possible photo positions and made sure that the passengers in nearby seats understood what I was trying to do. I was more nervous than everyone else, I guess, and was not sure how the cabin crew would react to my photography. Maybe they were under pressure from the media attention, and had some directive to stop photographers, I thought.
I felt that I only had a limited window to take pictures before they would confront me and tell me to stop. Thankfully, all the passengers were very understanding and did not mind me taking photos of them on the flight.
I planned out what I needed to do next and made notes on all the activities in the cabin from the moment I sat in my seat until the fateful 1.30 a.m. – close to the time of MH370's last known contact.
These were my entries:
00:35 Cabin crew performs a headcount
00:36 Cabin crew page for a missing passenger
00:43 Doors close
00:44 Safety videos play on the screens
00:45 Aircraft reverses
00:49 Aircraft moves forward towards the runway
00:50 Lights dim
00:56 Captain instructs cabin crew to be seated for take off
00:58 Aircraft accelerates and takes off
01:07 Slight turbulence but aircraft still gaining altitude
01:11 Lights turn back on. Cabin crew draw the curtains between business and economy class cabins, a guy sitting near me complains about his uncomfortable seat
00:13 Headphones are distributed, followed by custom arrival forms
01:18 Food cart is pushed forward, sandwiches and juice are served. No hot drinks due to turbulence
01:29 Announcement by the captain, who states the current altitude, the estimated journey time, time of arrival and general direction of flight
01:30 The captain concludes his announcement with “Pleasant evening and good night”
My heart skips a beat. What a coincidence – reports said the last radio message sent out from MH370 was “All right, good night”. I quickly took more photos of various maps showing the plane’s position on the in-flight screens.
After checking that I had all the photos and information that I needed, I felt a sense of relief. Now all I had to do was find out how the cabin crew felt about the flight. I entered the pantry and asked for some wine before engaging in small talk with the air stewardess.
“Of course we knew you were taking photos in the cabin,” one of them told me after I explained to the stewardesses what I was doing.
She said she had worked on previous MH370 flights and although she was not close to any of the missing cabin crew, she knew them and they had worked on shifts together from time to time. It was a big shock for her and many others; she remembered coming back to work the day after the disappearance to see a group of her colleagues crying over the shocking news.
I asked politely if they felt comfortable working on this flight after MH370 went missing. The cabin crew did not say much. Maybe it was a busy time, but maybe it was also time for me to stop the conversation.
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