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Update: Malaysia Airlines missing plane report suggests hypoxia led to crash

A recent report revealed by the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) has suggested that the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 (Flight MH370) went down in the southern Indian Ocean due to hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, overwhelming the crew and passengers. The report noted that the hypoxia most likely set in after the autopilot was engaged, providing conditions that kept the plane on a fairly straight course until it ran out of fuel.

The Christian Science Monitor reported (via Yahoo News) June 28 that the ATSB, after poring over data supplied by the British satellite company Inmarsat, Flight 370 was in all likelihood on autopilot until it depleted its fuel supply. This conclusion was based on the distance the Boeing 777 seemed to travel in a relative straight line as it moved southward over the Indian Ocean.

The autopilot being on was noteworthy in itself. It meant, according to ATSB's Martin Dolan, that it was "switched on." The autopilot does not switch on automatically. To become operational, someone on Flight 370 activated it.

According to the report, the jet engines of the Boeing 777 would not have stopped at the same time and the autopilot would have remained engaged and flying the plane until the second engine died. Following the second engine's inactivity, the autopilot would disengage, sending the massive plane into a descending spiral. The spiral would have placed the plane's crash further south than the last area searched, according to experts who plotted the missing plane's possible area of descent.

This will be the area searched when investigators resume searching in early August.

"Given these observations, 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," the ATSB report said, according to Reuters (via Yahoo News). In layman's terms, experts think the crew of Flight 370 most likely suffocated as the jet flew on autopilot until it expended all its fuel.

The ATSB noted that the speculative conclusions reached in the report were not meant to second-guess the Malaysians' official investigation into the incident. The report was only meant to aid in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

The report indicates that hypxia may have ensued following cabin depressurization. If this occurred, the plane's crew are equipped with masks and breathable oxygen that last an hour. Passengers' masks, however, are only equipped with twenty minutes of oxygen. The airplane would have had to descend to a lower altitude to allow everyone to breathe without masks.

It is still unknown why the plane might have been losing oxygen. A slow depressurization might have caused the crew to have been caught unaware, losing consciousness without realizing they were suffering from a lack of oxygen. Or there may have been no signs of hypoxia until it was too late due to instrument failure or lack of oxygen (or both) because of a sudden depressurization of the plane.

Investigators believe that, with what little data they as yet have to go on, the Boeing 777 with its 239 passengers and crew was initially deliberately diverted from its scheduled flight path. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 8 on its way to Beijing, China. Out over the South China Sea, all communications with the plane were suddenly lost.

A few hours later, military radar picked up the airplane's signature on radar. However, it was now hundreds of miles west of its original flight path and headed south toward an area of the Indian Ocean west of Australia.

Of course, the only way to answer all the myriad questions concerning missing Flight 370 is to find the plane itself. With the search area nearly the entire Indian Ocean (except for the area covered when searching for what was then believed to be the Boeing's black box pings). Some experts have gone so far as to say the missing plane may never be found.

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