Since Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared in the early hours of Saturday, March 8, last year, there have been persistent claims, validated by international media, that a large, very noisy aircraft flying low and spotted by inhabitants of a remote island in the Maldives could have been the missing plane. It's a scenario that has given hope to the families of the 239 people on board that they may at last discover the fate of the Beijing-bound airliner.
Kuda Huvadhoo would be hard to find by accident. The tiny island is located in the central part of the Maldives archipelago, at the southern tip of Dhaalu Atoll. It is not on the luxury tourism map and the island claims five mosques and just four private cars. Calls to prayer dictate the rhythm of the day, here, while weeks are punctuated by the arrival, every Wednesday morning, of the cargo ferry from the Maldivian capital, Male, delivering passengers, chickens, mopeds, sacks of rice and onions and the occasional fridge or fan.
Every Saturday, the same ferry returns to Male.
The population of Kuda Huvadhoo suddenly swelled to 3,500 in December 2004, when it had to accommodate survivors from two neighbouring islands destroyed by the great tsunami. The world's attention again turned to Kuda Huvadhoo when a number of islanders claimed to have seen a large plane, flying low, a few hours after MH370 disappeared from radar screens 40 minutes into its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
At first, the flight time from Kuala Lumpur appeared to be compatible with this theory - assuming that the aircraft had turned due west after its last contact with air-traffic control. Since it was scheduled to land in China at 6.30am, roughly the same time as the sighting over the Maldives, this assumption gathered support. Similar distance travelled, right timing. It all seemed to fit …
Malaysian officials were quick to reject the islanders' eyewitness accounts, however. Malaysia's then acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, told reporters at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on March 19 last year that the reports were not true, without giving further details. Besides, the trajectory over the Maldives was incompatible with what was becoming the official account of the disappearance, according to which, the aircraft had changed direction 40 minutes into the flight and had flown due south until it ran out of fuel, ultimately crashing at 8.19am somewhere in the Indian Ocean southwest of Perth, Australia, in one of the most isolated areas of the planet.
In the climate of distrust that had set in between the families of the disappeared and the authorities, though, Malaysia's denial lent credence to the possibility that the flight had instead flown towards the Maldives.
As time went on and no sign of the lost airliner emerged, the rumours refused to die. French weekly magazine Paris Match and newspaper The Australian sent reporters to the Maldives to investigate. Both publications claimed that the "large plane" spotted could have been MH370. The Australian report, published on April 4 this year, was widely circulated. It rekindled the controversy, and hope along with it.
If it were indeed MH370 that had been spotted that March morning over Kuda Huvadhoo, then the Boeing 777 could not have come down more than 4,000km away, where hugely expensive submarine search operations, led by Australia, are still ongoing.
ZUHURIYYA ALI, 50, greets us in the inner courtyard of her breeze-block home with a glass of rose-flavoured milk and a bowl of fresh mangoes. Leaning against a rack on which saucepans are drying in the sun, the housewife concentrates as she describes what she saw that morning, as she swept her yard.
It was a "big plane making a lot of noise", she says. She points to a section of her zinc roof and draws an arc in the sky. Ali remembers that it was 6.15am, give or take a few minutes, because 5am is prayer time, following which, at 6am, she usually sweeps her courtyard.
That morning, Humaam Dhonmonik, a 16-year-old schoolboy, had nipped out to retrieve a piece of clothing from the washing line. He was getting ready for his Saturday class, which starts at 7am. He saw the aircraft pass overhead through a gap between two tall trees. Using the compass on a mobile phone, he points to where the aircraft came from, west-northwest, concurring with Ali.
Logically speaking, MH370 should have been coming from the opposite direction - due east, or east-northeast. Humaam checks the location of Malaysia on his Google Maps app. The information troubles him. There was blue and red paint around the cockpit, he says, as you'd expect to find on a Malaysia Airlines aircraft, but "no logo" that he can remember.
Abdu Rasheed Ibrahim, 46, is the handyman at the magistrates' court. He was standing in the sea, fishing, when he heard the aircraft. He recalls that a strong wind was blowing, an oddity on the equator. And because it was blowing towards the plane, he wasn't aware of the aircraft until it was directly above him. When the plane banked to head south-southeast, he says, he saw "some red under the portholes, some red around the door".
"There is something behind all this," says Hussain Shakir, vice-president of the island council. "People have clearly seen something. But if the aircraft had come down in our waters, we would have found bits of wreckage.
"We have a lot of dhonis [fishing boats] out there. They have phones; even if they're a long way away, they notify us if something happens."
EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS WERE first published in local newspaper Haveeru Daily 10 days after the event.
"They were very insistent but we did not really believe them," remembers Shan Anees, a reporter with Male-based Haveeru. "What people from the small islands tell you they saw, you know …," he says, leaving what he thinks of outer islanders to my imagination.
Nevertheless, a story was published and then picked up by international news agencies. At that point, there was still genuine hope of finding MH370. The police and defence authorities, who had been handed the case after Malaysia came asking for details, rushed investigators to Kuda Huvadhoo to question the witnesses and take measurements. But the police report was never made public.
"The witness statements were highly inconsistent," is all that a Maldivian police spokesman is willing to concede when we meet in Male.
According to Captain Ibrahim Rasheed, director of flight operations at the country's Civil Aviation Authority, it could have been one of the many flights between the Middle East and Australia that pass over the Maldives.
"When they enter our airspace, they're still quite low, between 31,000 and 33,000 feet, on account of their fuel reserves," says the former pilot. "They often request permission to climb to 39-to-42 when they leave our space."
But Rasheed does not seem convinced by his own explanation. Although none of the witnesses considered the aircraft's altitude to be threateningly low, they all described it as being much closer to the ground than 30,000 feet.
"It didn't appear to be falling, it was just flying lower than normal," says Humaam.
Rasheed is more sure of himself when talking about the fire extinguisher found on March 24 last year, on the island of Baarah, 500km north of Kuda Huvadhoo. The spherical object, which looks like a floating mine and is the same shape as a certain type of aircraft-hold fire extinguisher, had been identified first by a Maldivian aeronautical engineer, according to quotes reported in Haveeru, and subsequently by other experts quoted in Paris Match, as being "very probably … a Boeing fire extinguisher".
Rasheed, though, is adamant this item didn't come from an aircraft, and certainly not from a Boeing: "A boat would be more likely."
He shows me copies of the 12 photos from the technical report sent to Malaysia. According to his local experts, none of the serial numbers on the item match parts used by Boeing.
The eyewitnesses on Kuda Huvadhoo are in agreement about two key points: the direction the aircraft was flying in and the time they saw it, 6.15am. But 6.15am in the Maldives is 9.15am in Beijing, almost three hours after the plane should have landed in the Chinese capital.
The writer of the Paris Match article states the time "fits well" but offers no numbers to back up the claim. In The Australian story, the time difference is mentioned but the journalist does not ask how a six-hour flight could still be in the air three hours after its estimated time of arrival.
According to Malaysia Airlines and the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, respectively, MH370 was carrying 49.1 or 49.2 tonnes of fuel when it took off. Having left Kuala Lumpur at 12.41am, the aircraft could have kept on flying until 8am (Kuala Lumpur or Beijing time) - or 8.30am, if flying conditions were perfect - according to Boeing 777 pilots consulted for this article. According to Inmarsat data, MH370 actually flew until 8.19am, which is 5.19am in the Maldives. MH370 would have run out of fuel long before 6.15am Maldivian time.
So what did the Kuda Huvadhoo islanders see?
"I WAS PLAYING BALL with my [three-year-old] son outside, when he pointed to the sky and shouted, 'Daddy! Plane! Plane!'" says Adam Saeed, who teaches Dhivehi (the Maldivian language) at the Dhaalu Atoll Education Centre. "My first thought was that it was a plane coming in to land at the next atoll's airport. I was just annoyed that it was flying so low and disturbing us all on a Saturday morning."
He, too, made a statement to the police.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority's official record of flights across the zone, retrieved from air-traffic control data, Maldivian, an airline that uses blue and red in its livery, operated flight DQA149, from Male to Veymandhoo, on March 8 last year. DQA149 landed at 6.33am at Thimarafushi Airport, on Thaa Atoll, some 50km south-southeast of Kuda Huvadhoo. The aircraft was a twin-engine DHC-8, a 50-seater that is notoriously noisy.
The pilot of flight DQA149 could have made an unusual approach due either to unfamiliarity with the route (the airport had been in operation for only a few months) or on account of the unusually strong wind mentioned by Ibrahim the handyman, say flyers consulted for this article. Since Thimarafushi Airport has no control tower and the radar systems in Male are not powerful enough to cover the area, no one other than the pilot might have noticed this anomaly - except, that is, for a few Kuda Huvadhoo islanders.
"In all probability, the plane that the islanders saw was this domestic flight," says Ibrahim Faizal, chairman of the board of directors of the Civil Aviation Authority.
Faizal, sitting at his desk on the 11th floor of an office block in Male, has become annoyed by the whole affair. He would like to get to the bottom of it and is still smarting from seeing the Civil Aviation Authority being sidelined when the investigation was placed in the hands of the defence and police forces.
"There's nothing to convince us that it could have been MH370: neither the route nor the timing support that theory," he says.
When pressed to confirm with Maldivian the flight path or the name of the DQA149 pilot, Faizal replies that he is "not sure Maldivian have records of routes flown that far back".
"These airports are not instrument landing system airports," he adds. "So it would have been a visual approach anyway."
Despite the inconsistencies, many relatives of the missing passengers, a large majority of whom are Chinese, were clinging to this improbable scenario as they try to imagine what happened to their loved ones. Now the question of which aircraft flew over Kuda Huvadhoo that fateful morning has been answered, the mystery surrounding what really happened to MH370 has only deepened.