New search area for MH370 announced; aircraft believed to be on autopilot before crash

mh370searchareamapThe new search area for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER that vanished in March has been announced and Australian officials have said the aircraft was “highly likely” to have been on autopilot before it crashed in the southern Indian Ocean.

A 64-page report on the search for flight MH370 was published Thursday by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. Australia has been coordinating search efforts since satellite information indicated the aircraft, which vanished from radar during a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing March 8, diverted a long way from its flight path and likely ended upon the ocean floor off the coast of Perth.

There were 239 people on board.

Australian officials said last week that they expected the massive international search area to shift farther south this summer.

Today, Australia, Malaysia and China announced that an expert satellite working group defined a new search zone of up to 60,000 sq kms along the arc in the southern Indian Ocean.

Australia’s deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said, “Specialists have analyzed satellite communications information—information which was never initially intended to have the capability to track an aircraft—and performed extremely complex calculations.

“The new priority area is still focused on the seventh arc, where the aircraft last communicated with satellite. We are now shifting our attention to an area farther south along the arc based on these calculations.

Truss said the search for MH370 continues with a bathymetric survey—or mapping of the ocean floor—in the search area, to be followed by a comprehensive search of the sea floor.

“The bathymetric survey has already commenced, with the Chinese survey ship Zhu Kezhen and the Australian-contracted vessel Fugro Equator conducting operations in the areas provided by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. It will take around three months to complete the bathymetric survey,” Truss said.

It is expected the underwater search will begin in August and take up to 12 months to complete.

Malaysia and Australia, meanwhile, are developing a memorandum of understanding to determine the areas of cooperation in the search and recovery activities, including financial arrangements.

Truss also said it was “highly, highly likely that the aircraft was on autopilot; otherwise, it could not have followed the orderly path that has been identified through the satellite sightings.”