Blaine Alan Gibson flies as often as the average person goes to the grocery store.
And up among the clouds at cruising altitude, his favorite thing to do is track the flight’s real-time progress on the monitor in the headrest in front of him. Occasionally, on really long trips he’ll watch a movie. More often than not, though, he’s drawn to that little pixelated plane that traces his path from here to there.
The screen was awash in blue one day in May 2015 as Gibson sat buckled into his coach seat. (It’s almost always coach.) He was traveling west from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to the Maldives, a curl of islands in the northern Indian Ocean too minuscule to register on the digital map in front of him. After roughly five hours in the air, he would land in the capital city of Malé and from there take two different speedboats south to an atoll with a population of just 2,500.
Once there, accompanied by the owner of the $40-a-night inn where he was staying, Gibson knocked on the door of homes made in part from harvested coral, asking residents if they’d seen anything strange in the sky in March 2014. The women, dressed in traditional Muslim garments, shied away from the inquisitive but polite white man in his late 50s who wore khaki cargo pants and a black T-shirt bearing the directive “Search On.”
The men, though, were more forthcoming. One, a court reporter named Abdu, confirmed what Gibson had heard from a handful of news outlets the year prior: On the morning of March 8, 2014, the island was buzzed by a commercial jet significantly larger than the prop jobs and seaplanes these islanders were accustomed to seeing. It flew so low, in fact, Abdu and the other witnesses said they could see the outline of the cabin door.
A couple days later Gibson boarded a seaplane back to Malé. On the ascent, he looked out of his window at the quickly shrinking island and reflected on the intel he’d gathered. If what these people told him was true—and to his mind they were credible witnesses who had no reason to lie—their accounts could be the key to solving one of the greatest aviation mysteries of the last century. Yet as far as he knew, he was one of only a few people to actually come out to the middle of the ocean and hear their story firsthand. Why?
To talk to Gibson, you first have to find him. At 9am on May 7, 2016, he was in Bangkok, Thailand, staying at a hotel with no Internet and a questionable phone connection. “If we lose each other,” he said through static, “just call me back.”
It was a Saturday. He didn’t know that, though, because ever since he untethered himself from nine-to-five life in the late 1980s, back when he was working and living full time in and around Seattle, days of the week have become virtually meaningless. Time zones are tricky too. Lately Gibson’s been fielding interview requests from reporters throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia, so to coordinate with them he has to add eight hours here, subtract 14 there, depending on where he happens to be at the time.
Over the last year Gibson has become the most visible member of a loose collective of amateur investigators scouring the globe for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared under mysterious circumstances more than two years ago. His face, tan and weathered and framed by a pageboy haircut, has repeatedly appeared on TV and in blogs and newspapers.
Which is ironic, because for the most part he prefers to keep his movements secret. That morning in May, Gibson was just days away from leaving Thailand on a fact-finding mission, the details of which he wouldn’t reveal. “I’m trying to talk to some people,” was all he would say. “It’s sort of a sensitive time.” He’s convinced that someone—terrorists, government officials or their proxies, others amateur sleuths—would prefer he make like Malaysia 370 and just disappear.
Honestly he was close to doing just that earlier this year. But then, unlike anyone engaged in the search—officially or unofficially—he actually found a piece of the plane. “I’d spent so much time looking and found nothing at all,” he says. “It was almost like winning the lottery.”
That last part is debatable. After spending more than a year and who knows how much money looking for the plane, his discovery wasn’t just a product of chance. And it’s most definitely not, he insists, the product of an obsession, as some have suggested. “I’d call it a mission,” he says. “I’d call it a quest.”
Gibson spent much of spring 2014 in Carmel, California, surrounded by cardboard. A condominium in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood is home when he’s in the United States—which happens less and less frequently these days—but that spring he was preparing to sell the house in which he’d grown up. The 2,500-square-foot rambler had sat mostly vacant for the nearly eight years since his mother died, and the burden of maintaining it had finally overtaken the nostalgia of holding on to it.
It was monotonous and emotional work, sorting through more than four decades of his parents’ belongings and condensing their lives into progressively smaller piles. Gibson was an only child, so there was no one there to debate what to keep and what to throw away. But there wasn’t anyone to reminisce with either.
His constant companion as he sat wrapping candlesticks and stuffing pictures in boxes was the television, specifically 24-hour news. That March the voices of Wolf Blitzer and Ashleigh Banfield and Don Lemon echoed through the steadily emptying halls of the Gibson home on Segunda Drive, and the only thing they seemed to want to talk about was a story as horrifying as it was fascinating.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12:42am local time on March 8, traveling northeast to Beijing. At 1:19, 37 minutes into what should have been a five-hour and 34-minute flight, the Boeing 777’s captain talked to Malaysian air traffic controllers for the last time, acknowledging that he would next be guided by a tower in Vietnam. The plane was over the Gulf of Thailand, east of the Malay Peninsula.
Then nothing. No communication. No sightings. And, initially, no satellite data to suggest where the plane might have gone. It just disappeared—along with its 227 passengers and 12 crew members.
Gibson had traveled regularly to Laos since 2005 and, once he finished with the home in Carmel, planned to help some friends open a new restaurant and bar on the Mekong River, near the Thailand border. He had acquaintances throughout Southeast Asia, had immersed himself in the culture, and could speak six languages, including some Lao. Flight 370’s origin made its disappearance that much more intriguing to him, and he couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to all of those people onboard.
The information that trickled out over the following weeks, though? That’s what really stuck with Gibson. Within days of the disappearance, Malaysian military officials reported—then denied reporting, then admitted—that, in fact, their satellites had detected the plane at 2:40am, almost 90 minutes after the country’s civil air traffic control lost contact with the crew. Stranger still, at that point Flight 370 was west of the Malay Peninsula, traveling in the opposite direction of its intended flight path.
Cables news’ endless loop of a handful of facts, followed by armchair analysis, followed by toothless debate, followed by the same handful of facts could make even the smallest new detail seem like the clue that would lead to a discovery. This development, though, carried with it a hint of—if not outright malfeasance—incompetence at the highest levels of Malaysian government. Helicopters and boats had been searching for wreckage and passengers for more than 48 hours. And they’d been doing it in the wrong place.
How, Gibson wondered, could that be allowed to happen? Not only had survivors—if there were any—lost precious time while the authorities got their stories straight, but their families were left floating too, emotionally unmoored by contradictory reports. The injustice of it stuck like a bad song in the back of Gibson’s brain, at times making it hard to concentrate on anything else and at others retreating just long enough to fool him into thinking he could forget about it.
Gibson was just starting grade school when his father, Phil, retired after more than two decades as the chief justice of the Supreme Court of California. But the elder Gibson’s career remained a presence all its own in the home on Segunda Drive as Blaine grew up, kept alive by Phil’s stories from his time on the bench.
Papa, as Blaine knew him, spoke proudly of publicly denouncing the Japanese internment camps set up in California by the federal government during World War II. As Blaine doodled on copies of old court documents, Phil told the story of the time in 1948 when his court struck down a state law that prohibited racially mixed marriages. And then in 1952 there was the case of Sei Fujii, who, like other Japanese immigrants, had been barred from purchasing land by the 40-year-old California Alien Land Law. Fujii’s suit traveled all the way to Gibson’s court, where the chief justice cast the deciding vote in Fujii’s favor, invalidating the law.
Maybe it was being surrounded by the boxed-up memories of his father in the near-empty house. Maybe he just needed an adventure. But as Blaine watched news correspondents and government officials and aviation experts fumble around, trying to explain how a 210-foot plane carrying 239 people could just vanish, he wondered if he couldn’t help in some small way. The families deserved it.
It would be a while before Gibson could turn his full attention to the search. He still had the house to sell and the bar to get up and running. But maybe once all of that was out of the way, he’d start poking around—assuming the plane hadn’t been found by then.
The southern Indian Ocean was relatively calm in early March 2015, with swells of just three to six feet. The Fugro Discovery, a 230-foot surveying vessel with a crew of two dozen, cut through those swells with little difficulty, dragging a canary yellow, torpedo-shaped device more than a mile beneath the surface. That unmanned towfish emitted sonar pulses that mapped the Indian Ocean floor in minute detail. The search for Malaysia 370 had long since shifted into recovery mode, and if the plane was down there, the Discovery—or one of the three other ships currently scouring this rocky, unpredictable underwater terrain—would find it.
Nearly 2,500 miles north, in Kuala Lumpur, Gibson stood among more than 100 people who had gathered at a public ceremony to recognize the one-year anniversary of the plane’s disappearance. The crowd held white balloons and listened to Grace Subathirai Nathan, the daughter of one of the missing passengers, who told the crowd that although she wasn’t yet willing to accept that her mother was dead, not knowing what had happened was tearing her apart. “Every day is like a living nightmare,” Nathan said, her voice wavering. “It is so important that we have some form of closure.”
One year. At the end of the ceremony, Gibson watched the attendees release their balloons and his stomach turned. He couldn’t stop thinking about the torture these people had endured while waiting so long without any news of their family members’ whereabouts. Those first few weeks were bad enough, as the Malaysian government stalled, withheld, and obfuscated. But the subsequent 12-month search was particularly galling. Not because it hadn’t turned up a thing but because, as far as he was concerned, the endeavor was based exclusively on one piece of evidence.
The current search area was settled upon in summer 2014 by a multinational partnership that relied upon the best guesses of aviation engineers and mathematicians. Although Flight 370 had fallen off of radar two hours after takeoff, it had continued to periodically ping a satellite owned by the British telecommunications company Inmarsat. These seven pings didn’t reveal the exact location of the plane, but they could be used to calculate how far it was from the satellite at the time. When the data was plotted on a map, it created a series of rings along which the plane was likely to have been at the time of each transmission.
Flight 370 successfully pinged Inmarsat’s satellite for the final time at 8:19am Malaysia time on March 8, meaning that it could have still been in the air seven and a half hours after takeoff. Based on a handful of other variables—wind speeds, available fuel, the typical Boeing 777’s fuel efficiency—investigators narrowed down where on the seventh ring they thought the plane was at the time of that last transmission.
“Narrowed down” was a relative concept: The search teams would now focus on a 46,000-square-mile arc of the Indian Ocean off the western coast of Australia. By comparison, the recovery effort for Air France Flight 447, which went missing under similarly strange circumstances in June 2009, zeroed in on a 40-square-mile area of the Atlantic Ocean. And two years passed before what was left of the plane and its passengers was found.
By the one-year anniversary of Flight 370’s disappearance, the underwater recovery effort—officially launched by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau in October 2014—had mapped 11,500 square miles without finding a single piece of debris. (The small fleet of vessels contracted by the ATSB would, however, find a centuries-old shipwreck in May 2015.)
Gibson wasn’t the least bit surprised. Disappointed on behalf of those still waiting for answers, but not surprised. After selling his parents’ home in Carmel—for the tidy sum of $1.18 million—he’d devoted most of his time and attention to the bar and restaurant in Laos, which was finally set to open later in spring 2015. When he wasn’t working on that, though, he researched Malaysia 370.
He watched the news, but without any significant developments after the first month, the 24-hour networks were devoting less and less time to speculation and conjecture. So he plunged into the Internet, studying what he could find on Inmarsat’s technology and the flight capabilities of a Boeing 777. He absorbed the analysis that other, more technically savvy, amateur investigators had conducted while puzzling over the missing plane. And finally, he joined a Facebook group, MH370 In Search of the Truth, where he could debate and share information with people who knew what they were looking for but not always why. Each morning he and the other members would log in and find a simple post reminding them how many days it had been since Flight 370 disappeared, followed by one word: hope.
This unofficial dossier on the missing plane—spread out over the digital transom in the minds of hundreds, maybe thousands, who answered to no one but themselves—was fascinating if not a little wonky. But the one lead that kept gnawing at him was the one that couldn’t be proved or disproved with an equation.
Less than two weeks after Flight 370 went missing, residents of the Maldivian island Kudahuvadhoo told a Malaysian newspaper that they’d seen a low-flying passenger jet just after 6am on March 8, 2014. A few could even make out two horizontal stripes—one red, the other blue—that ran the length of the fuselage. Malaysia Airlines planes have a red and blue stripe. And although the Inmarsat data wouldn’t surface publicly for another couple weeks after the Maldives report, the first time the satellite pinged the plane and didn’t get a response was at 9:15am in Malaysia—or 6:15 Kudahuvadhoo time. In other words, technically, up until just before that unsuccessful ping the plane could have still been airborne and—again, technically—the witnesses could have seen it when they said they saw it. The timeline didn’t leave much room for error, but then that could also explain why the plane was low enough for them to see the door: Maybe it was already on its way down.
Yet Malaysian officials disregarded the sighting almost immediately, without speaking to the witnesses. The plane didn’t have enough fuel to fly that far, they said. And besides, they were confident, though they had no radar report to confirm it, that the plane had ultimately headed south before disappearing. Gibson was dumbfounded. How could any responsible investigator refuse to follow up even the shakiest of leads when the stakes were so high?
As for this Inmarsat data that investigators were so sure proved Malaysia 370 went down near Australia? Gibson didn’t buy it, at least not entirely. If the calculations were off by even a little, the Fugro Discovery and other ships could be thousands of miles off course. He couldn’t say with any certainty that the search area was wrong, but he couldn’t say with any certainty that it was right, either. He needed more evidence.
So in early 2015, Blaine Gibson decided two things: First, he had just as good a chance of uncovering what happened to that plane as anyone else. And second, he had to start his search in Kudahuvadhoo.
As Gibson discovered when he joined the Facebook group MH370 In Search of the Truth, he was hardly the only private citizen caught in the story’s gravity. There were those who had family or friends on Flight 370. Others, like Sheryl Keen, of Perth, Australia, had lost someone in a crash as well and sympathized. Jeff Wise, a pilot and writer from New York, was pulled in almost accidentally: CNN producers found a piece he’d written for Slate about the disappearance and invited him to join the network’s stable of on-air aviation experts.
And then there was Gibson, who lived everywhere and nowhere at once and was motivated by the sense of justice to which he was born.
Whether or not those amateur sleuths are conscious of it, there are a couple other things that make Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 so captivating. For starters, consider the WTF factor, as in where the fuck…? The near complete lack of hard data related to Malaysia 370’s final hours made its disappearance unprecedented. Even Air France Flight 447 offered some clues as to where it went down. So as the weeks and months passed without any new evidence, the mystery only deepened, making the impossible seem—if not plausible—possible.
From there, the conspiracy-minded among us started connecting dots based on what little information there was. And for some, the less information available, the better. “It’s not evidence that drives belief,” says Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and the coauthor of American Conspiracy Theories. “It’s evidence combined with a worldview. And sometimes that worldview overtakes the power of the evidence.” In the case of Malaysia 370, those world views informed conclusions that ran from wild to really wild: One or both of the pilots were suicidal. Russian hijackers, working on orders from Putin himself, absconded with the plane and buried it in a remote corner of Kazakhstan. (That was Jeff Wise’s theory, which he later spun into an ebook.) CNN’s Don Lemon wondered aloud if the plane had been sucked into a black hole. “People blame the villain they already hate,” says Uscinski.
There’s something else fueling the Malaysia 370 fascination, though: the idea that, at least on a cosmic level, we live in a just world. “We generally think things don’t happen without a cause,” says Nadya Vasilyeva, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “So when you have this very bad, very rare event and can’t identify a cause, it becomes contradictory to our perception of the world. It’s disturbing.”
In other words, scale matters. We’re willing to blow off life’s minor hiccups with a These things happen, but something as extreme as a plane crash—or worse, a plane disappearance—requires an explanation. And not just a simple one, Vasilyeva explains. “We want to find something that is proportional to the event.” We need to believe that fate isn’t so fickle.
But while others were developing hypotheses and looking for evidence to back them up—confirmation bias, in psychological terms—Gibson has been working in the other direction. He is, he repeatedly insists, just gathering facts that he hopes will one day coalesce to provide a narrative of what happened.
That dispassionate adherence to the scientific method is one of the things that Peter Davenport admires so much about Gibson. Davenport is the longtime director of the National UFO Reporting Center, based in Eastern Washington. He and Gibson have been friends for two decades, meeting when they can to discuss politics, social trends, and some of history’s biggest mysteries. “Sometimes serious-minded investigation—like a rabbit warren—leads you in many, many different directions,” Davenport says. “And in order to get to the end of that pursuit, a person has to be prepared to navigate that rabbit warren. Blaine is one of those people.”
Sheryl Keen didn’t know quite what to make of Gibson when he came to visit her in Perth in August 2015. She’d met him through the Flight 370 Facebook group and been impressed enough by his dedication to invite him to Australia and help him in his search. No one else she knew was actually traveling the world to do real, boots-on-the-ground research. He’d written up a 3,400-word report on his trip to the Maldives—one of several he’d produce through his search—and shared it with the group and other sites. Keen read every word and came away from it convinced that if nothing else, solving the mystery was much more than just a hobby for him.
Still, though, a random dude from Seattle spending gobs of his time and money looking for a plane to which he had no real connection? It was…strange. “He’s either a total whack job or he’s quite sane,” Keen says now, laughing.
Just weeks before Gibson arrived in Australia, a man collecting rocks on the eastern shore of La Reunion, an island 440 miles east of Madagascar, in the French Indian Ocean, found what appeared to be a six-foot piece of an airplane wing, covered in barnacles. Although it would take a little more than a month for French officials to confirm that the flaperon did, in fact, come from Malaysia 370, its discovery brought new life to Gibson’s search.
His trip to Australia would be a busy one. Though the Kudahuvadhoo sighting still weighed heavily on him, he hadn’t yet ruled out the possibility that debris could wash up just about anywhere. So for 10 days, Keen drove him up and down the country’s west coast, where the pair combed rocky beaches looking for debris. They didn’t find anything of significance; there was an empty drink bottle inscribed with what might have been Malay writing, but locals informed the pair that they’d found it in a popular fishing spot for Malaysian anglers.
Gibson’s time down under wasn’t a complete bust, though. He got some face time—brokered by the wife of a Flight 370 passenger whom he had befriended—with Australian deputy prime minister Warren Truss and members of the ATSB. And Keen pulled some strings and got him a meeting with Dr. Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of oceanography at Western Australia University who produced a drift model that predicted where the Indian Ocean currents could have carried debris from a downed airplane.
The animated lines on Pattiaratchi’s computer monitor, swirling and meandering from east to west across tens of thousands of miles of open water, didn’t necessarily prove that the plane the Maldivian witnesses claimed to have seen was Flight 370. But what they absolutely did was convince Gibson that he needed to get to the east coast of Africa.
When Gibson was just 12, he embarked on a two-month European vacation with his mother, Victoria. His father stayed home; Phil’s idea of having fun with Blaine was to sign him out of school and go see Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers take on Juan Marichal and the Giants at Candlestick Park.
The itinerary for Blaine and his mother’s excursion included the usual suspects, like France, Italy, and Switzerland. But it was what came after that made the trip special. The pair boarded a cruise ship on the coast of the former Yugoslavia and toured the Mediterranean, stopping first in Greece and then moving on to Turkey. Greece’s music and culture excited Blaine, but, strangely, it was the country’s political unrest that he found really enthralling. Two years earlier a handful of rogue army generals had overthrown the government, and the idea of a military dictatorship was so foreign—and yet fascinating—that it planted in him a desire to see the rest of the world and understand how it worked.
At the University of Oregon, he studied political science and gravitated to the international students. One of his closest friends was Shabbir Karim, a Pakistani emigre with whom he shared several classes. They both moved to Seattle after graduation—Gibson got a job at Seafirst Bank, Karim bounced around the hospitality industry—and shared an apartment.
Anyone who’s ever had a roommate has a story of walking in on them in a compromising position, but Karim’s is unique. He came home from work late one night and heard music pounding from inside the apartment. After turning the key, he slowly peeked around the door and saw Peter O’Toole on TV, racing across the desert on horseback in Lawrence of Arabia. It wasn’t the movie that stopped Karim cold, though. It was Gibson.
Months earlier Karim had flown home to visit his family in Pakistan, and before he left Gibson asked him to bring back a dishdasha, the traditional white, long-sleeve, ankle-length tunic worn by Muslim men. He wouldn’t explain why he wanted it, but now Karim understood. As Gibson stared at the flickering TV, he was wearing the dishdasha, complete with a keffiyeh. “I mean if there was an earthquake, it could not shake him,” Karim says now. “He was just riveted.”
For the next 25 years, Gibson lived a life that could be described as unconventionally adventurous. After a short stint at Seafirst, he moved to Olympia and worked for three years in the office of Washington state senator Ray Moore. Then he joined the U.S. Department of State. But he didn’t last long there either; in the late ’80s he could see that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and decided to capitalize on it. For 10 years he lived off and on in the newly capitalist Russia, serving as a consultant to new business owners and fattening a bank account that would later fund his globe-trotting.
In his downtime he spent months-long stretches in Central America looking for what had led to the sudden collapse of the Mayan civilization. Or he’d travel to Ethiopia and follow clues he hoped would lead to the lost Ark of the Covenant. Vacations included trips to Afghanistan, where he chatted up rebels and posed for pictures while holding their AK-47s.
“Blaine leads a life as close to that of T. E. Lawrence as anyone I know from my generation,” says Peter Davenport. He doesn’t even pause when reminded that some people—particularly the media—compare Gibson to Indiana Jones. “That’s probably a better one.”
In the movies, adventurers are usually searching for the MacGuffin, an object—sometimes mysterious, always coveted—that drives both their quest and the story’s narrative. Gibson found his in late February 2016.
He was in Mozambique, technically on vacation. Ever since that European trip with his mom, he’d set a goal to visit every country at least once; now he could check his 177th off the list. But because he couldn’t help himself, early on the morning of February 27 he chartered a small boat and asked the captain to take him to where he thought ocean debris was most likely to wash up.
Two miles from a horn of land that pokes out of the country’s central coast, they came to a short sandbar that, thanks to the tides, was only accessible for a short time each day. And that’s where Gibson found his first piece of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Light gray and shaped like a dorsal fin, the hunk of fiberglass was just lying there in the sand, like a seal that had come ashore briefly to sun itself. Had Gibson arrived an hour later, it might have already slipped back out to sea. The words “No Step” were stenciled in black along one jagged edge. It bore no other markings that could directly tie it to the plane—the flaperon, for example, was stamped with an easily identifiable registration number, 9M-MRO—so he’d have to wait for someone from Boeing or Malaysia Airlines to determine its provenance. For now, though, he’d settle for the shot of adrenaline that came with possibly finding what he’d been hunting for nearly a year. He held up No Step—the nickname he’d later give the piece—while the charter boat’s captain took several pictures. His expression is not unlike the one he wore when he posed with the Afghans’ AK-47s: a grin that’s trying valiantly, but failing, to remain a stoic straight line.
Less than a week later, those pictures had traveled around the globe with an AP story that identified Gibson as a Seattleite, adventurer, blogger, and lawyer. (Technically just the first two are true. His only public writing on Flight 370 was the report on his Maldives trip. And though he passed the bar in 1992, he’s never practiced law.) To the world he’d become an overnight mini celebrity. To those who’d been following his progress over the previous year, it was confirmation of what they already knew.
Among amateur investigators, credibility isn’t a product of connections but of independence. Trust isn’t earned with bona fides but with results. So to people like Sheryl Keen, yeah, it was hardly a shock that Gibson was the first person actively searching for Flight 370 to find a piece of it. While the governments of Malaysia and Australia were coordinating their search efforts—two hulking bureaucratic ships incapable of making quick adjustments—he could go anywhere, look under any rock, without having to ask permission. He had comparatively limited resources, but he could use them freely, without justifying each expense.
“Blaine will find the answers before the government,” Keen says without hesitation. “Yeah, my money’s on Blaine.”
Other independent discoveries followed in short order. A teenager in South Africa, who wasn’t aware of Flight 370 until Gibson popped up on the news, came forward with a piece of debris he’d found the previous December. Then an archaeologist, also in South Africa, stumbled upon a notebook-size chunk of an engine. As of June 1, 2016, five pieces of confirmed wreckage had been recovered, all by everyday citizens. Gibson calls them—and himself—the Finders.
On March 24, the ATSB announced that No Step “almost certainly” came from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, but his friends had already been circling their digital wagons. “To whom it may concern,” wrote an administrator of MH 370 In Search of the Truth in a March 20 post. “Our number 1 priority is to protect Blaine Alan Gibson.” The closed group had been flooded with requests from potential new members in the previous weeks, and admins believed that many of them wanted to cast doubt on his find.
Elsewhere, the rabble accused Gibson of being either a central figure or unwitting pawn in a nefarious plot to cover up what had “really happened.” Jeff Wise, the CNN expert, was among the vocal doubters. He still believed strongly that Flight 370 (or at least its passengers) was hidden away somewhere in Kazakhstan or Russia. He interviewed a handful of experts, all of whom questioned whether the three most recent pieces showed enough evidence of biofouling—barnacles, algae, and other marine life—to have been at sea for two years. “There is only one reasonable conclusion to draw from the condition of these pieces,” he wrote on his blog in mid-April. “Since natural means could not have delivered them to the locations where they were discovered, they must have been put there deliberately. They were planted.”
By then Gibson was used to online abuse. After his report on the Maldives went live in July 2015, the site that hosted it, thehuntformh370.info, was hit with a denial-of-service attack that crippled it for days. Then, he says, Twitter lit up with assaults of a much more personal nature. He won’t go into specifics, though. “Once you repeat the slanderous accusations of a person or group of people who are making them,” he says, “you fuel the fire.” But he’s happy to take a stab at who was making them: any one of a number of parties who might be worried that he’s getting too close to the truth. (Or, you know, it’s the Internet and people just suck sometimes.) It was all enough to make him a little more cautious, to keep his movements a secret. That fact-finding mission he wouldn’t talk about in our first conversation? It was just a follow-up trip to reinterview the Maldivian witnesses.
As to Wise’s planting theory, Gibson won’t say much, other than that it’s “preposterous.” It’s an example, he says, of trying to make facts fit a theory rather than the other way around.
Instead of getting into who did what to whom and why, though, he’d prefer to focus on looking for the plane. Australia’s official search is set to end, even if it fails to uncover the wreckage, in August. Gibson hopes that if debris keeps washing ashore, it will force the ATSB or others to extend the investigation or even adjust where they’re looking. But he’s realistic. He knows how expensive an endeavor like this can be. “I hope that the search doesn’t end until they find the plane, but even if it does, there are some of us who are going to continue looking,” he says. “I’m going to go to Mauritius. A piece was just found there. Maybe I’ll be there in time to see it. And I’m going to go to Madagascar. I think that’s where stuff would most likely wash ashore.”
Gibson announced those travel plans in mid-May. In the first week of June he did, in fact, go to Madagascar. And on June 6 he led a French television news crew to a thin strip of land off the island’s east coast. They rode quads along the beach, and at the north end he signaled for the party to stop.
The camera crew had a good reason to follow him: He is, to this day, still the only person to find a piece of Flight 370 while actually looking for it. And he’d done enough research to have a good idea where he might find more. But come on, it was still a one-in-a-million find. There’s no way he’d actually uncover another.
With the cameras trained on him, Gibson dismounted and started walking. And as he got closer to the object that had caught his eye, he could see that it was gray fiberglass. It was almost a clone of No Step. Later, he found a handful of other pieces, one of which looked exactly like the housing for a seat-back TV monitor. He couldn’t be sure, but he had a pretty good idea they came from Flight 370. And if anybody should be able to make that leap, it’s the guy who has spent more than a year interviewing pilots and aviation engineers and studying plane schematics and fiberglass composites.
Gibson was, as you might imagine, difficult to get ahold of in the following days; those French reporters were keeping him busy, and he was communicating with authorities to make sure his find got where it needed to go. But via Facebook he did share pictures of the debris and managed to field a few questions. When asked how it felt—exciting? vindicating?—to have found more pieces of the plane, he replied with a one-word answer.