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New theory of missing jet aloft

– Investigators believe the missing Malaysia Airlines plane flew on autopilot for hours before crashing into a remote part of the Indian Ocean, Australian officials said Thursday as they announced another shift in the search area for the jet.

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.

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.

The latest nugget of information from the investigation into Flight 370 came as officials announced yet another change in the search area for the plane that vanished March 8 after taking off from Kuala Lumpur with 239 passengers and crew on board.

The transport safety bureau said it made the assumption in defining the new search area that the crew was unresponsive, possibly suffering from oxygen deprivation, as the plane flew under autopilot. It said this was indicated by the loss of radio communications and the long period without any maneuvering of the plane. It said, though, that this was only a working theory and did not mean that investigators led by Malaysia would reach a similar conclusion.

A loss of cabin air pressure could cause oxygen deprivation, or hypoxia, which could make pilots unable to perform even basic tasks.

The new search area is several hundred miles southwest of the most recent suspected crash site, about 1,100 miles off Australia’s west coast. Powerful sonar equipment will scour the seabed for wreckage in the new search zone, which officials calculated by reanalyzing the existing satellite data.

The new 23,000-square-mile 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 hunt is now focused underwater.

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