Investigators are confident the missing Malaysia Airlines jet was on autopilot when it crashed, a top Australian transport official says

The search area for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 will shift further south in the Indian Ocean to a 60,000-square-km arc after analysis of satellite data, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss announced on Thursday.

“The new priority area is still focused on the seventh arc where the aircraft last communicated with satellites,” Mr. Truss, who holds the Transport portfolio, said. “We are now shifting our attention to an area further south along the arc based on these calculations.” The Boeing 777 with 239 passengers and crew disappeared on March 8, 2014 shortly after leaving Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.

Mapping of the 6-km-deep ocean floor will take another three months and a search of the sea floor is expected to begin in August and take up to 12 months.

Much of the area is covered by a flat plateau but if the plane sank into one of the deep trenches it could be very difficult to find.

‘Investigators believe MH370 was on autopilot’

Meanwhile, a top Australian official said in Canberra that investigators looking into the disappearance are confident the jet was on autopilot when it crashed in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean.

After analysing data between the plane and a satellite, officials believe Flight 370 was operating on autopilot the entire time it was flying across a vast expanse of the southern Indian Ocean, Australian Transport Safety Bureau chief commissioner Martin Dolan said.

“Certainly for its path across the Indian Ocean, we are confident that the aircraft was operating on autopilot until it ran out of fuel,” Mr. Dolan told reporters in Canberra.

Asked whether the autopilot would have to be manually switched on, or whether it could have been activated automatically under a default setting, Mr. Dolan replied: “The basic assumption would be that if the autopilot is operational it’s because it’s been switched on.”

But exactly when the Boeing 777 began running on autopilot is still not known.

“We couldn’t accurately, nor have we attempted to, fix the moment when it was put on autopilot,” Mr. Truss said. “It will be a matter for the Malaysian-based investigation to look at precisely when it may have been put on autopilot.”

The shift in search area was expected, with Mr. Dolan saying last week the new zone would be south of an area where a remote-controlled underwater drone spent weeks fruitlessly combing 850 sq km of seabed. That search area was determined by a series of underwater sounds initially thought to have come from the plane’s black boxes. But those signals are now widely believed to have come from some other source.

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