As an aviation correspondent for news channel CNN, veteran journalist Richard Quest has had plenty of experience when it comes to reporting on air disasters.
From the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, to the crash of Air France Flight 447 in Rio de Janeiro in 2009, Quest has been involved in the news coverage of many aviation incidents through the years, offering his unique insights and analysis to help viewers understand complex and technical aviation issues.
Yet on March 7, 2014, even Quest found himself in a situation he found hard to comprehend when he first got news that a Malaysian airliner had suddenly gone missing. This is an experience he describes in his new book, The Vanishing Of Flight 370: The True Story Of The Hunt For The Missing Malaysian Plane, which was released earlier this week.
“Like many other aviation pundits, I had little doubt that the story tomorrow would be ‘daylight and the first debris from the missing Malaysia plane has been spotted in the South China Sea’. This would then flow into the rhythm that these stories assume,” Quest wrote in one chapter of Vanishing.
“I was wrong. The morning would bring no debris, and the story was about to take some extraordinary turns.”
Vanishing, published by Berkley Books, New York, is a comprehensive account of the dramatic, often confusing, events that arose from the disappearance of MH370, often referred to as one of the biggest mysteries in aviation. The book, which came out on Monday (in conjunction with the second anniversary of MH370’s disappearance), also takes a revelatory behind-the-scenes look at how Quest dealt with becoming the face of one of the decade’s biggest news stories.
“The core point of all this, that remains the most incredible, is that two years after, we don’t know where the plane is with any degree of certainty. Many people have different theories, but actually, we have no idea what happened in the cockpit of that flight,” Quest says, speaking during an exclusive phone interview with Star2.com from Atlanta, Georgia.
As CNN’s foremost international business correspondent and host of the popular show Quest Means Business, Quest is perhaps one of the world’s most recognisable journalists, having covered many major events for CNN , from the death of Michael Jackson to the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. An award-winning journalist, he has interviewed diverse guests ranging from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner.
In Vanishing, Quest takes readers through the various twists and turns of the MH370 saga, from the chaos and confusion arising after its disappearance was discovered, to the underwater search for it which involved the resources of several nations, and finally, to the discovery of the plane’s flaperon on Reunion, France, in September last year.
The book also covers CNN’s extensive coverage of the incident, including the (in)famous moment when anchor Don Lemon addressed one viewer’s question if black holes could have caused the disappearance!
“I’d covered the whole issue of MH370 and had quite a huge amount of detail. About six months to a year afterward, I realised I had enough research to put together a book. And I was able to look at the different aspects of the story in a greater, wider context,” Quest says.
“It was quite an ordeal because it’s an extremely complicated story, fraught with difficulty. And tensions still remain very high in relation to it, particularly in China and Malaysia,” he adds, referring to covering the incident as a journalist.
Vanishing also analyses the actions of everyone involved in the disaster (including the Malaysian Government and Malaysia Airlines), with Quest offering commentary on how well (or how badly) their efforts contributed. Also included are interviews with Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein, Acting Transport Minister at the time of the incident, and then Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.
According to Quest, having to re-live his experiences of covering the event for the book was a very interesting experience.
“You certainly go back to square one, going back through the various reports and remembering the incidents. For instance, when the families of the people on board were told by text that the plane had gone missing, or we learnt that the plane had turned, and then continued to fly for six or seven hours. It became even more incredible that all this had ever happened,” Quest recalls.
His challenge writing the book, Quest says, was making a lot of the technical information involved accessible to the reader.
“This is not a book for geeks or aviation experts. This is a book for ordinary people who have been fascinated by what happened on board MH370 and want to know something more about it,” Quest explains.
In Vanishing, Quest also gives his account of how the MH370 story suddenly took a personal turn after the public discovered a selfie of Quest with Fariq Hamid, the aircraft’s co-pilot. It had been taken a few weeks before MH370’s disappearance, while Quest had been in Malaysia to film an episode of his CNN show, British Traveller.
This odd coincidence, however, had led many people to speculate that CNN knew more about the MH370 incident than they let on, Quest says.
“To have flown with him, and then have this selfie turn up in newspapers and online, people asking how much did we know about it? It was extraordinary. You don’t normally get that close to a news story before it happens.
“I remember Hamid to be an engaging 27-year-old who was looking forward to getting married and flying to interesting places. When I heard he perished a few weeks later on MH370, it was really very sobering.”
Quest’s book also offers analysis of the possible causes of the plane’s disappearance as well as his own views on what actually happened.
Unlike many aviation pundits, Quest does not believe that the pilots were responsible, although he is keeping an open mind on the issue.
“There are a lot of rumours, and very few facts,” he points out.
Asked if he thinks an incident like MH370’s disappearance could happen again, Quest says it is possible, adding that he welcomes the new aviation safety regulations being put in place to avoid this.
“If you look at the crash of Air France 447, it reported its position four minutes before it crashed. Four minutes! And it still took two years to find it. So the answer is the new rules coming in from the ICAO, which say the plane must report its position every 15 minutes. And if something is going wrong, it must immediately report it every minute,” Quest says, referring to the International Civil Air Organisation.
“I think those new rules aren’t due to come in until 2018. So I think there’s an urgency to get the equipment in and get the technology working.”
When asked about the recent debris found off the coasts of Reunion and Mozambique, Quest says he is optimistic – but cautious. Even if the debris is found to be part of the missing airliner, Quest says, we might not be able to learn much new information about the aircraft’s fate from them.
Ultimately, Quest says, there are questions about MH370 that bother him to this day. One is about how MH370 had purportedly made a U-turn on its course, flying across Malaysia before disappearing from radar.
“The biggest single question that has not been answered is why nothing was done on the night that the plane flew back across Malaysia. And if there is one issue, it’s how we have never been told by the Royal Malaysian Air Force why they failed to track the plane properly. They said there would be an investigation, but we’ve never heard anything more,” Quest says.
“The biggest smoking gun is why on that night, at two o’clock, the Royal Malaysian Air Force data operator did not send a plane up to see why MH370 was going off course. That for me is the greatest mystery.”