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Images narrow hunt for missing airliner

Plane could have flown hours on autopilot

– The search for a missing Malaysia Airlines flight intensified Thursday in the remote waters of the southern Indian Ocean after a Colorado company discovered that its satellite had captured images of two whitish objects floating in the ocean.

The photos of what officials say may be airplane debris surfaced when DigitalGlobe reviewed grainy images that its commercial satellite had collected after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared.

The heightened scrutiny came when the United Nations called on an international consortium of space agencies and satellite companies to scan the oceans for clues to the whereabouts of the Boeing 777.

Dozens of ships and aircraft have been dispatched to an area about 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia.

A Norwegian cargo vessel in the vicinity arrived at the location and used its searchlights to scan the waters before dawn. Four military airplanes also searched the area and were to resume their hunt at daybreak today.

The search has failed to find any other possible signs of the downed airplane, which vanished March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board. Locating those pieces in the 230,000-square-mile search area will be difficult.

“If they are plane parts, they are probably several hundred miles away by now from the impact site,” said Robert Benzon, who spent 27 years as a National Transportation Safety Board lead crash investigator.

“Trying to trace back the currents to a specific location after all this time is going to be very, very difficult.”

The images taken by Digital Globe’s WorldView-2 satellite were taken Sunday. They show one object about 80 feet long and one that measures 15 feet.

Malaysian investigators have said it is likely that the plane was deliberately steered off its course toward Beijing by somebody, which has led to scrutiny of the plane’s pilot and co-pilot.

The southern Indian Ocean would be a bewildering destination for a hijacker. It also seemed an unlikely destination for a pilot bent on suicide, as others have suggested.

But the suspicion that the plane flew into that remote area of the ocean renewed the possibility that it was operating on autopilot after the crew and passengers were incapacitated by a system failure, a fire or a hijacking gone awry, U.S. experts said.

They said it is possible that the plane continued on autopilot for hours with its crew and passengers no longer alive.

Benzon said a fire or depressurization might explain the plane’s abrupt deviation from its scheduled route.

“It seems like most of the world thinks that there’s something nefarious going on, and in the end, it could very well be,” Benzon said.

“But I haven’t heard a lot of conversation about a bona fide in-flight emergency that might have partially incapacitated the crew, and then the crew initiates this grand turn to the left to try to get back to land.”