Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Was Flying On Autopilot Before It Crashed

Less than a week after the pilot of Flight 370 was named as the "chief suspect" in the airplane's disappearance, Australian officials confirmed Thursday that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was on autopilot as it flew over the southern Indian Ocean. What this means, in an age when most pilots do depend on an auto flight system, remains to be seen — and in the meantime, the search continues.

After studying the transmission data between a telecommunications satellite and MH370 — which suggested that the plane had been flying straight for an extensive distance, probably thousands of miles — investigators concluded that the autopilot function was operating soon after the plane flew over Sumatra. Investigators think that it was probably switched on by a pilot or a crew member, and that it was probably already on when the plane pinged the satellite.

Said Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, at a press conference in Canberra: "Certainly for its path across the Indian Ocean, we are confident that the aircraft was operating on autopilot until it ran out of fuel."

So what does the plane's being on autopilot actually mean? Well, it's not quite clear. For one thing, the autopilot function is complex, and wide-ranging. According to Patrick Smith, a veteran airline pilot who was interviewed by National Geographic last year, autopilot is "a collection of subsystems that help control various aspects of a flight. .. Different components are used at different times, and can be used together or separately, depending."

And it's common: roughly 75 to 80 percent of a flight is done using the autopilot, on a commercial planes, said Kevin Hiatt, Executive Vice President of the Flight Safety Foundation to AOL Travel.

That doesn't mean that the pilots aren't involved, though; on the contrary, as Smith explains:

One of the most stubborn myths in all of aviation is this notion that pilots just sit there while the plane flies itself from City A to City B. It's infuriating to know that people believe this, because it's utterly false. Airplanes do not fly themselves. The crew flies the airplane through the automation ... The equipment makes things easier, but the operation itself is controlled by humans.
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The plane vanished three months ago, and the mystery is still far from the solved. Only last week, fingers were (unofficially) turned to the flight's pilot, Captain Zaharie Shah, whose home flight simulator had a practice flight pattern eerily similar to that tracked by MH370 before its disappearance. Nothing has been confirmed, though, and in the meantime, the search has now changed its area of focus — though still in the ocean off Western Australia, is roughly 23,200 square miles in total.

"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," said Australia Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss. "The new priority area is still focused on the seventh arc, where the aircraft last communicated with satellite."

"This site is the best available and most likely place where the aircraft is resting,” he added.