Australian officials say the MH370 flight was on auto pilot, as the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane shifts further south into the Indian Ocean.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said officials are now confident the plane was flying on auto pilot and it ran out of fuel earlier than they had previously predicted. ‘It is highly, highly likely was on auto pilot otherwise it would not have followed the ordinate path that has been identified through the satellite sightings,’ Mr Truss said.
Mr Truss said the new search area is based on fresh analysis of existing satellite data from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The plane vanished during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew aboard.
Mr Truss added that the new search phase could take more than a year, with three months spent mapping 23,000 square miles of seabed before the search could even begin. Underlining the scale of the task, he said the previous search area covered just 330 square miles of seabed.
The shift was expected as the head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, Martin Dolan, said last week it would move south. ‘This site is a most likely place where the aircraft is resting,’ he said. ‘The search is going to be painstaking – of course we could be fortunate and find it in the first hour or the first day, but it could 12 months.’
Mr Truss said Australia remained dedicated to the task of solving ‘this greatest aviation mystery in total history.’ Two vessels, one Chinese and one from Dutch engineering company Fugro are currently mapping the seafloor along the so-called seventh arc, a travel path where the plane last made contact with satellites, where depths can exceed 16,000ft (5,000m) in parts.
The next phase of the search mission is expected to start in August and cost of A$60 million ($56 million) or more. The search is already the most expensive in aviation history. The news that the plane was on autopilot comes just days after Malaysian Airlines pilot Zaharie Shah, 53, was revealed to be the prime suspect behind the plane’s disappearance.
The criminal inquiry completed intelligence checks on all of the people on board the flight to Beijing via Kuala Lumpur, but the only individual arousing suspicion was Captain Zaharie. The father-of-three was found to have no social or work-related future plans, unlike the rest of the crew including his co-pilot, Fariq Hamid.
The criminal inquiry, which is yet to rule out other reasons for the plane’s disappearance including a mechanical failure and terrorism, has so far only released its results to foreign governments and their investigators.
Malaysian police made the announcement after discovering files on Shah’s home flight simulator showing he practiced landing on small airfields, including several in the Indian Ocean. The files had been deleted from the computer before officials seized it, but have since been recovered by detectives.