Search for Malaysian plane shifts south

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Search for Malaysian plane shifts south
Flight officer Rayan Gharazeddine, on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, scans for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. China released on March 22 a new satellite image of a large floating object possibly linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, boosting search efforts as anger with the pace of the operation boiled over among Chinese relatives in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob Griffith (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
Crew on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion scan ahead as they search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. China released on March 22 a new satellite image of a large floating object possibly linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, boosting search efforts as anger with the pace of the operation boiled over among Chinese relatives in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob Griffith (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion flies past the HMAS Success as they search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 debris or wreckage in the southern Indian Ocean on March 22, 2014. The Orion under took a four-hour journey to search an area approximately 2,500 kms southwest of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 feet above the ocean, and then a four-hour return. China released on March 22 a new satellite image of a large floating object possibly linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, boosting search efforts as anger with the pace of the operation boiled over among Chinese relatives in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob Griffith (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN - MARCH 22: Flight Lieutenant Jason Nichols on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, takes notes as they search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 debris or wreckage on March 22, 2014 in Southern Indian Ocean, off the west coast of Australia. The Orion under took a four hour journey to the search an area approximately 2500km south west of Perth, two hours on station searching at about 400 foot above the ocean with then a four hour return. The search to identify whether two large objects spotted via satellite in the Indian Ocean are related to missing flight MH370 continued today, for the third day, with no results. The airliner went missing nearly two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Photo by Rob Griffith-Pool/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 21: A Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion is seen on the tarmac after returning to Pearce air base following a search mission for possible MH370 debris on March 21, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Australian authorities yesterday received satellite imagery that shows two large objects in the Indian Ocean that may be debris from missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. The airliner went missing nearly two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
A photo taken on March 21, 2014, shows a crew member on a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft participating in the Australian Maritime Safety Authority-led search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the Southern Indian Ocean. Spotter planes spent a second fruitless day scouring a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean for wreckage from a Malaysian jet. Australian and US military aircraft usually used for anti-submarine operations criss-crossed the isolated search area 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) southwest of Perth, looking for two floating objects that had shown up on grainy satellite photos taken several days before. AFP PHOTO - POOL / BOHDAN WARCHOMIJ (Photo credit should read BOHDAN WARCHOMIJ/AFP/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 21: Royal Australian Air Force pilot Capt. Russell Adams addresses the media after returning from a search mission in a P3 Orion at Pearce air base on March 21, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Australian authorities yesterday received satellite imagery that shows two large objects in the Indian Ocean that may be debris from missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. The airliner went missing nearly two weeks ago carrying 239 passengers and crew on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Chinese relatives of passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 wait for news at the Metro Park Lido Hotel in Beijing on March 20, 2014. Surveillance aircraft scoured a remote and stormy section of the Indian Ocean on March 20 for a pair of floating objects that Australia and Malaysia guardedly called a 'credible' lead in the 12-day-old hunt for a missing passenger jet. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
INDIAN OCEAN - This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the areas searched between March 18 and March 20, 2014 for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. Two objects possibly connected to the search for the passenger liner, missing for nearly two weeks after disappearing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, have been spotted in the southern Indian Ocean, according to published reports quoting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (Photo by AMSA via Getty Images)
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: Australian Maritime Safety Authority Emergency Response Division General Manager John Young speaks to the media about satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 March 20, 2014 in Canberra, Australia. Two objects possibly connected to the search for the passenger liner, missing for nearly two weeks after disappearing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, have been spotted in the southern Indian Ocean. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)
A navigational radar on Indonesia's National Search and Rescue boat shows details during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. The last words spoken from the cockpit of the Malaysian passenger jet that went missing 10 days ago were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot, the airline's top executive said Monday. AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A personnel of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue checks the map during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. The last words spoken from the cockpit of the Malaysian passenger jet that went missing 10 days ago were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot, the airline's top executive said Monday. AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A personnel of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue looks over horizon during a search in the Andaman sea area around northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 17, 2014. The last words spoken from the cockpit of the Malaysian passenger jet that went missing 10 days ago were believed to have been spoken by the co-pilot, the airline's top executive said Monday. AFP PHOTO / CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Colonel Do Duc Minh (2st L), Vietnam Air Force's 370 Division's Chief of Staff, points at a map as he speaks to reporters about search flights aimed at finding the missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh city on March 15, 2014. Do Duc Minh said Vietnam continues their search flights while widening the search areas close to air spaces under control of Thailand and Singapore. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH NAM (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
A ground worker carries out maintenance works on a Vietnam Air Force's Russian-made AN-26 aircraft that was used along with other types of aircrafts at finding the missing Malaysia Airlines plane at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh city on March 15, 2014. A Malaysian jet that vanished a week ago appears to have changed course and continued flying for hours, a senior Malaysian military official said, citing radar data indicating a 'skilled, competent' pilot was at the controls. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH NAM (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA MARCH 15: Mystery over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines passenger Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China continues on March 15, 2014. The flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. (local time) on March 8 and lost contact with air traffic control near the Island of Pulau Perak, in less than an hour after take-off, at approximately 2:40 a.m. A joint search and rescue effort covering an area of the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea and Andaman Sea is being conducted by more than 12 countries. ( Photo by AA Graphic/Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 14: Members of the public, MAS staff, and politicians pray during a special prayer as the search for missing Malaysian airline MH370 expands to the Indian Ocean March 14, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The missing aircraft carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew disappeared six days ago baffling the international rescue and search team who have found no remains or clues in the waters surrounding South East Asia. All passengers and crew are currently under investigation for possible sabotage although no evidence of such activity has been found. (Photo by Rahman Roslan/Getty Images)
Indonesian Air Force officials at Medan city military base plot the Indonesian military search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 12, 2014 in the area of Malacca Strait, a sea passageway between Indonesia (seen left of the map) and Malaysia (seen right on the map). Malaysia faced a storm of criticism on March 12 over contradictions and information gaps in the hunt for a missing airliner with 239 people on board, as the search zone dramatically veered far from the intended flight path. AFP PHOTO / ATAR (Photo credit should read ATAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Indonesian Air Force at Medan city military base inspects the Indonesian military search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 on March 12, 2014 in the area of Malacca Strait, a sea passageway between Indonesia (seen left of the map) and Malaysia (seen top left of the map). Malaysia faced a storm of criticism on March 12 over contradictions and information gaps in the hunt for a missing airliner with 239 people on board, as the search zone dramatically veered far from the intended flight path. AFP PHOTO / ATAR (Photo credit should read ATAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Beachgoers walk past a sand sculpture made by Indian sand artist Sudersan Pattnaik with a message of prayers for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 - which vanished from radar early on March 8 with ongoing search operations mounted by multiple nations taking place in the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, and the Andaman Sea - at Puri beach, some 65 kilometers away from Bhubaneswar, on March 14, 2014. Malaysia denied March 12 that the hunt for a missing jet was in disarray, after the search veered far from the planned route and China said that conflicting information about its course was 'pretty chaotic'. AFP PHOTO/ ASIT KUMAR (Photo credit should read ASIT KUMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of a passenger on board missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 cries as she arrives at the Everly hotel in Putrajaya on March 12, 2014. Malaysia's air force chief said authorities have not ruled out the possibility a missing airliner inexplicably changed course before losing contact, but denied reports the jet had been detected far from its planned flight path. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency personnel scans the seas aboard a boat on patrol in the Malacca Strait off Aceh province located in the area of northern Sumatra island on March 12, 2014 during the continued search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The search for a missing Malaysian jet swung northwest towards the Andaman Sea on March 12, far from its intended flight path, exposing Malaysia to mounting criticism that its response was in disarray. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 11: This composite of images #477770287 & #477770285 shows cctv imagery released by police of an Iranian suspect, Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, who was travelling on Flight MH370 with a stolen Austrian passport, (L) and an unindentified suspect who was travelling on Flight MH370 with a stolen Italian passport (R), on March 11, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Officials have expanded the search area for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 to include more of the Gulf of Thailand between Malayisa and Vietnam and land along the Malay Pensinusula. The flight carrying 239 passengers from Kuala Lumpur to Thailand was reported missing on the morning of March 8 after the crew failed to check in as scheduled. Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports. (Photo by How Foo Yeen/Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 10: Major General Datuk Affendi Buang briefs the media over latest updates on missing Malaysia Airline MH370 on March 10, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Potential sightings of possible airliner debris and a possible oil slick in the sea off Vietnam have not been officially verified or confirmed as investigative teams continue to search for the whereabouts of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MG370 and its 293 passengers, travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The airliner was reported missing on the morning of March 8 after the crew failed to check in as scheduled. Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports. (Photo by How Foo Yeen/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 08: Medical staff (C) arrive at a hotel meeting room care of families of missing persons at Lidu Hotel on March 8, 2014 in Beijing, China. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and carrying 239 onboard was reported missing after the crew failed to check in as scheduled while flying over the sea between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, according to published reports. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Malaysian Airlines senior officials Dr Hugh Dunleavy (L) and a member of the airline's crisis management team, Ignatius Ong (R), face the Chinese media after arriving in China to deal with the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 plane, in Beijing on March 8, 2014. Malaysia Airlines said a flight carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing early on March 8, and the airline was notifying next of kin in a sign it expected the worst. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 08: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA) Joshua Law Kok Hwa (C), Malaysia Airlines' regional senior vice president of China, speaks at a conference regarding the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 at the Metropark Lido Hotel on March 8, 2014, in Beijing, China. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and carrying 239 onboard was reported missing after the crew failed to check in as scheduled while flying over the sea between Malaysia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, according to published reports. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
AT SEA, KELANTAN COAST, MALAYSIA - MARCH 09: In this handout provided by the Malaysian Maritime Agency, a patrol vessel of Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency searches during the search and rescue mission for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 9, 2014 off the Kelantan coast, Malaysia. Potential sightings of possible airliner debris and a possible oil slick in the sea off Vietnam have not been officially verified or confirmed as investigative teams continue to search for the whereabouts of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MG370 and its 293 passengers, travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The airliner was reported missing on the morning of March 8 after the crew failed to check in as scheduled. Relatives of the missing passengers have been advised to prepare for the worst as authorities focus on two passengers on board travelling with stolen passports. (Photo by Malaysian Maritime Agency via Getty Images)
Buddhist monks offer special prayers for passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on March 9, 2014. Malaysia said a missing airliner carrying 239 people may have inexplicably turned back as authorities launched a terror probe into the plane's sudden disappearance, investigating suspect passengers who boarded with stolen passports. AFP PHOTO/ STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
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By Kristen Gelineau

SYDNEY (AP) - Investigators believe the missing Malaysia Airlines plane flew on autopilot for hours before crashing into a remote part of the Indian Ocean, Australian officials said Thursday as they announced another shift in the search area for the jet.

After analyzing data exchanged between the plane and a satellite, officials believe Flight 370 was on autopilot the entire time it was flying across a vast expanse of the southern Indian Ocean, based on the straight path it took, 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," Dolan told reporters in Canberra, the nation's capital.

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

But exactly why the autopilot would have been set on a flight path so far off course from the jet's destination of Beijing, and exactly when it was switched on remain unknown.

"We couldn't accurately, nor have we attempted to, fix the moment when it was put on autopilot," Transport Minister Warren 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 latest nugget of information from the investigation into Flight 370 came as officials announced yet another change in the search area for the plane that vanished March 8 after taking off from Kuala Lumpur with 239 passengers and crew on board.

The transport safety bureau said it made the assumption in defining the new search area that the crew was unresponsive, possibly suffering from oxygen deprivation, as the plane flew under autopilot. It said this was indicated by the loss of radio communications and the long period without any maneuvering of the plane. It emphasized, however, that this was only a working theory and did not mean that accident investigators led by Malaysia would reach a similar conclusion.

A loss of cabin air pressure could cause oxygen deprivation, or hypoxia, which could make pilots unable to perform even basic tasks.

The new search area is several hundred kilometers (miles) southwest of the most recent suspected crash site, about 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) off Australia's west coast, Dolan said. Powerful sonar equipment will scour the seabed for wreckage in the new search zone, which officials calculated by reanalyzing the existing satellite data.

The shift was expected, with Dolan saying last week the new zone would be south of an area where a remote-controlled underwater drone spent weeks fruitlessly combing 850 square kilometers (330 square miles) 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.

The new 60,000-square kilometer (23,000-square mile) search area falls within a vast expanse of ocean that air crews have already scoured for floating debris, to no avail. Officials have since called off the air search, since any debris would likely have sunk long ago.

The hunt is now focused underwater. Beginning in August, private contractors will use powerful side-scan sonar equipment capable of probing ocean depths of 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) to comb the ocean floor in the new search zone. The job is expected to take 12 months to complete.

Two survey ships are mapping uncharted expanses of seabed in the search zone before the sonar scanning starts. Dolan said it was possible the mapping equipment could detect wreckage that may be lying on the seafloor, but that it was highly unlikely.

The search area has changed multiple times in the months since Flight 370 vanished, as officials struggled to make sense of the limited data the flight left in its wake after it dropped off radar. The plane's communications systems were disabled, giving investigators little to work with beyond data gleaned from hourly transmissions, or "handshakes," between the plane and a satellite.

University of New South Wales aviation expert Peter Marosszéky said if the autopilot was still working when the plane crashed, it suggests the aircraft's communications systems were switched off rather than disabled by a major malfunction or catastrophe.

"It would appear very unlikely that power was removed from most of the essential systems, because you can't connect your autopilot if your flight management computers aren't operating," he said. "It would appear that it lost all communication and identification with air traffic control because those systems were turned off. You can't connect the autopilot if you've got systems that have been put out of action."

John Cox, a Washington, D.C.- based aviation consultant, former airline pilot and accident investigator, said it was unclear at what point the autopilot was programmed to fly out into the open ocean.

But he said it was done by someone with expert knowledge.

"Someone with knowledge interacted with the flight management computer and told it to do certain things which requires knowledge of the proper entry key strokes to get it entered and to have the computer exercise those instructions," Cox said.

Truss said he was optimistic that the latest search zone is the most likely crash site. But he warned that finding the plane remains a huge task.

"The search will still be painstaking," he said. "Of course, we could be fortunate and find it in the first hour or the first day - but it could take another 12 months."

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