Everything We Know About the Mysterious Disappearance of Flight 370

Early Saturday morning, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 vanished from radar screens and lost contact with air traffic control. Five days later, the plane is still missing. Here's what we (don't) know:

Officials still don't know even the general area where the plane lost contact.

Initially, officials thought the plane lost contact about an hour after takeoff, somewhere over the South China Sea, in between Malaysia and Vietnam. The Vietnamese navy spotted a large oil slick that they thought came from the plane. Debris spotted near the oil was also believed to be from the plane.

As it turned out, the miles-long streak of oil was from some other ecological disaster and the debris was just random ocean litter.

Making things even more complicated is the fact that the Malaysian military has evidence showing that the plane might have veered sharply off course and travelled hundreds of miles from its last known position, possibly in an attempt to turn back to land.

But even the reporting of that information was complicated: At first, a Malaysian newspaper reported it, citing statements from Malaysia's air force chief. Later that day, the air force chief denied making the statements, only, one day later, for the Malaysian government to reconfirm them.

But even with the report confirmed, officials still aren't sure if those radar "pings" are from the missing plane.

"Today we are still not sure that it is the same aircraft," Hishammuddin Hussein, the country's defense minister, told reporters, according to the New York Times. "That is why we are searching in two areas."

How big are those two areas? Combined, they cover more than 31,000 miles and include ocean depths that reach 5,000 feet. At least 40 ships and 39 planes from 10 counties have joined in the search.

The passengers who boarded the flights probably weren't terrorists.

In what was perhaps the most mysterious report in the hours after the plane's disappearance, two of Flight 370's passengers boarded under a false identify, using passports stolen from an Italian and an Austrian citizen. Were they terrorists? Drug smugglers? Some other scary thing?

As it turns out, no. The two men, both Iranian citizens, were reportedly traveling to Europe, via Beijing, to seek asylum. One of the men, 19-year-old Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, was on his way to Frankfurt to meet his mother. The other, 29-year-old Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, was on his way to Copenhagen.

Neither had any ties to terrorism groups, according to an Interpol investigation.

"The more information we get, the more we're inclined to conclude that it was not a terrorist incident," Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said.

So, no terrorism?

Probably not. Most evidence points to some sort of mechanical failure, like midair disintegration, or to pilot error, especially since no terror groups have claimed responsibility. However, there is still, technically, a chance that terrorism is to blame.

"There might be another reason for [terror groups] not coming forward at this point," Shawn Henry, a former executive assistant director at the FBI, told CNN. "If it was a terrorist incident...if this was part of a much larger or broader potential act, and for whatever reason, they wouldn't come forward at this point, but at a later time."

But if it was terrorism the plane likely would have been hijacked, not blown-up midair, since U.S. spy satellites show no record of any large midair explosions in the region that morning.

Pilot error? Is there precedence for that?

In 2009, Air France Flight 447 crashed in the Atlantic Ocean while flying from Brazil to Paris in a powerful storm. An investigation into the crash eventually faulted the plane's flight crew for not realizing that "they were in a stall situation and therefore never undertook any recovery maneuvers." That said, Flight 370 didn't pass through any poor weather, so pilot error, or at least pilot error similar to Air France's, seems unlikely.

If the plane did disintegrate midair or crash into the ocean, how long will it take to find? It can't take that long, right?

Well. It took more than two years five days to find wreckage from Air France Flight 447 but more than two years to recover its flight recorder, so it could take a while to find anything from Flight 370. Especially when you consider that some of the water in the search area reaches depths of 5,000 feet.

What about all these conspiracy theories?

There are some good ones! Though, if you ask me, this story is already so mysterious and bizarre that the last thing it needs is the addition of insane and probably untrue theories. But since you asked:

Some people are saying, of course, that aliens are to blame. Others say the plane was hijacked by North Korea and flown to Pyongyang. There's also a theory about pilot suicide—loosely based on EgyptAir Flight 990, which went down when its pilot reportedly intentionally crashed the plane.

UPDATE: About a minute after this post was published, the Chinese government released satellite images taken on March 9 that show wreckage near where Flight 370's transponder turned off.

Everything We Know About the Mysterious Disappearance of Flight 370

[Image via Getty]