Australian officials said the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in March, most likely suffocated before the jet crashed into the ocean.
The Australian Transport Safety Board wrote in a 55-page report that the plane crashed farther south in the Indian Ocean than the area that was previously investigated several weeks ago. The report also narrowed the possible resting spot for the aircraft, which had 239 people on board, according to the Reuters news agency.
“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,” stated the ATSB report.
Australian officials have announced this week there will be a search farther south in the Indian Ocean.
Officials also said it was likely the plane’s autopilot was switched on deliberately after the plane went off course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
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 pilot of the plane, captain Zaharie Shah, has again been named as the prime suspect for the plane’s disappearance. Officials came to their conclusion after more than 170 interviews, finding he had no social or work commitments in the future–in contrast to co-pilot Fariq Hamid and other crew members.
Investigators discovered Zaharie, 53, programmed a flight simulator in his home that rehearsed a flight far out in the Indian Ocean. The plane would then land on a small island runway.
The files were deleted on his but they were recovered by investigators, reported The Australian. Zaharie had posted a number of aviation videos on Internet websites.
“The police investigation is still ongoing. To date no conclusions can be made as to the contributor to the incident and it would be sub judice to say so. Nevertheless, the police are still looking into all possible angles,” Malaysian police said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.