In recent weeks we’ve been following the tragedy and mystery of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board. Less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing all communication was cut off. The plane diverted unexpectedly across the Indian Ocean and disappeared from civilian air traffic control screens. There has been much controversy surrounding the transcript of the last incoming transmission between the air traffic controller and the cockpit of the ill-fated flight.
We tend to have a morbid fascination with people’s last words. We assign profound meaning and philosophical insights to the final words uttered by those who face their fate ahead of us. There are numerous books and websites that chronicle the linguistic legacies of famous people such as Douglas Fairbank’s ironic, “I’ve never felt better”, to Woodrow Wilson’s courageous, “I am ready”, and the betrayal expressed in Julius Caesar’s, “Et tu, Brute?” Planecrashinfo.com maintains a database of last words from cockpit recordings, transcripts, and air traffic control tapes. These are disturbing announcements of impeding doom including, “Actually, these conditions don’t look very good at all, do they?” through to an assortment of cuss words, and moving farewells, “Amy, I love you.”
Commentators’ speculation surrounding the last words from the cockpit of MH 370 doesn’t only satisfy the public’s curiosity, but it was hoped to reveal the plane’s fate. During the early stages of the investigation, Malaysian authorities stated that the pilot’s hand-off was the unceremonious “All right, goodnight”. The informal nature of this phrasing increased suspicions that the plane was taken over by hijackers and the pilot was under immense psychological stress. If terrorists stormed the cockpit and seized the controls they might not be familiar with the complex register spoken by pilots. Alternatively, it was feared that such unconventional language might suggest that the pilot was suicidal, or a political fanatic who tried to sabotage the flight. (Some “experts” even believe that the Bermuda Triangle is to blame.)
However, new information has now come to light that fills in the blanks. The Malaysian Transport Ministry has released the full transcript of the final communications between MH370 and the Kuala Lumpur air traffic controllers:
12:46:51 MAS 370 Lumpur Control Malaysian Three Seven Zero
12:46:51 ATC Malaysian Three Seven Zero Lumpur radar Good Morning climb flight level two five zero
12:46:54 MAS370 Morning level two five zero Malaysian Three Seven Zero
12:50:06 ATC Malaysian Three Seven Zero climb flight level three five zero
12:50:09 MAS370 Flight level three five zero Malaysian Three Seven Zero
01:01:14 MAS370 Malaysian Three Seven Zero maintaining level three five zero
01:01:19 ATC Malaysian Three Seven Zero
01:07:55 MAS370 Malaysian...Three Seven Zero maintaining level three five zero
01:08:00 ATC Malaysian Three Seven Zero
01:19:24 ATC Malaysian Three Seven Zero contact Ho Chi Minh 120 decimal 9 Good Night
01:19:29 MAS370 Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero
The final words were not “All right, goodnight”, but the more self-referential, “Good night Malaysian Three Seven Zero” (although Malaysian authorities didn’t explain the discrepancy with the initial account and why they let it stand uncorrected for weeks.) This correct transcript and its context shows that there was nothing out of the ordinary in this final transmission. According to the standard protocol for sign-off, the pilot names the air traffic controller, repeats their message, and closes off with the aircraft’s call sign. As we can see, the speaker didn’t address the air traffic control facility or repeat the final message. However, airline safety experts have stated that there was nothing strange about this sign-off, or even the incorrect version of the transmission.
Unfortunately, these final words from the cockpit don’t offer any clues about the plane’s disappearance, and what actually happened remains a mystery for the time being.
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.
Federal Aviation Administration. Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques. https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/aim/aim0402.html
Pearson, Michael and Jim Clancy. April 2, 2014. Report: MH370 disappearance a criminal investigation, police chief says. http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/01/world/asia/malaysia-airlines-plane/index.html?hpt=hp_t1
Plane Crash Info. http://www.planecrashinfo.com/lastwords.htm
MAS 370 Pilot ATC Radiotelephony Transcript. http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2014/images/04/01/transcript.pdf