Investigators looking into the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane are confident it was on autopilot when it crashed in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean, Australian officials said as they announced the latest shift in the search for the jet.
After analysing 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 on Thursday.
"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.
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 remains unknown.
"We couldn't accurately, nor have we attempted to, fix the moment when it as 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."
New search area
This latest information from the investigation into Flight 370 came as officials announced yet another change in the search area for the plane, the Associated Press reported.
The aircraft vanished on March 8 after taking off from Kuala Lumpur with 239 passengers and crew on board.
The new search area is several hundred kilometres southwest of the most recent suspected crash site, about 1,800km off Australia's west coast, Dolan said.
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 kilometres of seabed.
The new 60,000 square kilometre 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 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.