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Flight MH370 search shifts further south

Investigators are confident missing Malaysia Air flight MH370 was on autopilot when it crashed in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean.

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Canberra: The missing Malaysia Airlines jet appears to have been on autopilot as it flew south across the Indian Ocean until running out of fuel, and the likeliest scenario is that the crew of Flight 370 was unresponsive, possibly suffering from the effects of oxygen deprivation, Australian officials said on Thursday in announcing a new deep-sea search for the aircraft.

A report issued by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, outlining how the new search zone had been chosen, said the most likely scenario as the Boeing 777-200 headed south across the Indian Ocean on March 8 was that the crew was suffering from hypoxia or was unresponsive for another reason.

Hypoxia occurs when a plane loses air pressure and the pilots, lacking adequate oxygen, become confused and incapable of performing even basic manual tasks.

Despite intensive searches, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has not been found.

Despite intensive searches, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has not been found. Photo: Getty Images

Evidence for an unresponsive crew as the plane flew south includes the loss of radio communications, a long period with no manoeuvring of the aircraft, a steadily maintained cruise altitude and eventual fuel exhaustion and descent, the report said.

"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 document said. The report added that this was an operating assumption for the search and that it was not meant to infringe on Malaysia's authority as the government responsible for conclusively identifying a cause for the loss of the plane.

There is no consensus among investigators, even within the Australian government, on the hypoxia or unresponsive-crew theory. Other officials said some investigators still leaned toward the possibility that one of the pilots deliberately flew the plane to the southern Indian Ocean in a suicide mission that also killed everyone else on the plane.

Advocates of the hypoxia theory argue that pilot suicide cases tend to involve pilots who crashed their planes suddenly, not after hours of flight. A clinical psychologist advising the investigation has been very sceptical of the suicide theory, saying it would be highly unusual for a suicidal person to proceed with such a deadly plan over many hours, investigators said.

New York Times