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Malaysia Airlines plane 'highly likely' on autopilot before going down

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Australia officials said Thursday that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was "highly, highly likely on autopilot" for several hours prior to going down somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean. The conclusion was reached by studying data supplied by the British satellite company Inmarsat and was provided in a 55-page report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) as the foundation for shifting the search for the missing plane hundreds of miles further south than the previous search zone.

AFP reported June 26 that Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said at a press conference in Canberra that analysis of the data led experts to believe it was now "highly, highly likely that the aircraft was on autopilot" when Flight 370 went down.

"Otherwise," he continued to tell reporters, "it could not have followed the orderly path that has been identified through the satellite sightings."

Truss made the announcement alongside Martin Dolan, commissioner of the ATSB, the organizaton that is now leading the international search for the missing plane. Dolan agreed with the deputy prime minister.

"Certainly for its path across the Indian Ocean we are confident that the aircraft was operating on autopilot until it went out of fuel," he said.

Truss noted that specialists had used information supplied by Inmarsat to make "extremely complicated calculations" with data that was actually never designed to track airplanes to do just that in the case of missing Flight 370. He then announced that the search area, although still focused on the "seventh arc" (where the satellite and the Boeing 777 last communicated with each other electronically), would shift hundreds of miles south based on the new calculations.

The press conference was promised last week that would officially announce the intentions of the search effort after an Inmarsat scientist made comments about a calculated "hotspot" that lost its priority status to the four pings heard during the underwater search. An Inmarsat executive latered clarified that there were no true "hotspots" but that there was an area of higher probability where the missing Boeing 777 may have finally plunged into the ocean. It was also noted that Inmarsat only supplied the data and that the actual search targets were decided upon by those in charge of the actual search efforts.

The search began on March 8 after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 suddenly disappeared over the South China Sea en route to Beijing, China, from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It would again be picked up on radar a few hours later headed south -- but also hundreds of miles to the west of its previous location. Investigators would only later piece together data that indicated that the missing plane eventually crashed into the southern Indian Ocean west of Australia.

Reuters reported (via Yahoo News) that the search for missing Flight 370 now will be centered over 1200 miles (2000 kilometers) west of Perth, Australia, and will encompasss an area covering over 37,000 miles (60,000 square kilomters). It will begin in August and is projected to last as long as a year.

The ATSB report not only pointed out that the Boeing jet carrying 239 passengers and crewmen most likely ran on autopilot until it exhausted its fuel supply, but, given the evidence, the missing plane was also most likely deliberately diverted.

"Given these observations," the report said, "the final stages of the unresponsive crew/hypoxia event type appeared to best fit the available evidence for the final period of MH370’s flight when it was heading in a generally southerly direction."

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