Truss showing the new search area in the Indian Ocean for MH370, at the Parliament House Canberra, Australia. - EPA
PETALING JAYA: Australia said the search for MH370 has shifted further south and the aircraft is now believed to have been on autopilot before it disappeared.
“It is 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,” said Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss during a press conference in Canberra yesterday.
However, he said the investigators could not, and had not intended to, pinpoint the moment when the aircraft was put on autopilot.
“We know it was on autopilot during the critical phase of our tracking but it will be a matter for the Malaysia-based investigation team to look at precisely when it may have been put on autopilot,” said Truss, who also declined to comment on speculation about the pilot having flown the course on his simulator, pointing out that it was irrelevant to their task of finding the aircraft.
“I don’t really want to comment on areas which will probably be the responsibility of Malaysia and its investigators,” he said.
Truss said the Australian Transport Safety Bureau had released a report which outlined the basis for their conclusion that the new search area was the most likely place where the aircraft could be found.
He said the new priority search zone was 60,000sqkm, and was greatly expanded compared to the previous underwater search area of only 860sqkm.
“The new phase of the search will have two elements. Firstly there will be mapping of the sea floor in the area, which is already under way, and a comprehensive search once mapping had been completed,” he said.
Mapping is currently being undertaken by Chinese survey ship Zhu Kezhen and the Australian-contracted vessel Fugro Equator.
Truss said mapping of the very deep sea floor was expected to take about three months to complete, while the underwater search was expected to commence by August.
“To put new equipment into the area without a clear knowledge of what the sea floor is like will certainly put at risk the capacity of that equipment to operate safely,” he said.
Truss added that the search effort would include equipment provided by Malaysia, including vessels equipped with towed sonar systems.
Despite acknowledging the enormity of the task, Truss remains optimistic.
“The search is still going to be painstaking. Of course, we could be fortunate and find it in the first hour or the first day, but it could take another 12 months.”