Investigation Sheds Light on Final Moments of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

A candlelight vigil in Zhuji, China, on March 10, 2014, for the passengers on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. (Image credit: VCG/Getty Images)

When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 mysteriously disappeared shortly after takeoff in March 2014, there was probably no one at the aircraft's controls when it crashed, a new analysis suggests.

Satellite data contradicts recent claims that pilots were able to steer the aircraft during its final minutes of flight, right before it plunged into the ocean, reported.

According to a statement released Wednesday (Nov. 2) by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which is leading the search-and-recovery mission for the missing flight, models of the plane's final trajectory and evidence from wreckage linked to the missing flight show that preparations were not made for a controlled ditch, an emergency water landing under a pilot's guidance. [Flight 370: Photos of the Search for Missing Malaysian Plane]

Since MH370's disappearance, little evidence has surfaced to confirm what, exactly, took place after air traffic control in Malaysia lost contact with the plane. The ATSB report accompanies the launch of a two-day meeting in Canberra, held from Nov. 2 to 4, by an international team of experts to review progress made in the investigation thus far.

The ATSB evaluated data from satellite communications (Satcom), and found that the final signals from MH370 were consistent with "a high and increasing rate of descent" — a sign that no one was wrestling with the airplane's controls to pull it into a more controlled glide, officials stated in the report.

Wing wreckage provided further evidence that MH370's final descent was out of control, the ATSB report stated. A wing flap identified as part of MH370's right wing had washed ashore on June 20 in Tanzania, and was checked for signs that it had interacted with "mechanisms, supports and surrounding components" in the wing that would suggest the flap was extended into a landing position prior to the crash.

But close examination confirmed that the flap was not deployed, the investigation found. By contrast, it likely would have been deployed during a ditching, if the pilot had been in control, officials said.

Other pieces of debris thought to belong to the missing flight are described in the ATSB report. To date, more than 20 potential pieces of wreckage have been recovered from Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues islands, from the east coast of Madagascar, and from the eastern and southern coasts of Africa.

However, the main airplane body and the remains of the 239 people on board the flight have yet to be discovered.

More than 42,000 square miles (110,000 square kilometers) of seafloor have been searched so far, and officials will continue to look for MH370 in the 46,000-square-mile (120,000 square km) search zone through early 2017, the ATSB said in a statement.

"Ministers went to great lengths to explain this does not mean the termination of the search," the statement said. "Should credible new information emerge that can be used to identify the specific location of the aircraft, consideration will be given to determining next steps."

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.