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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Likely Ran Out of Fuel, Report Says

May 27, 2014, 12:11 a.m. ET
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Likely Ran Out of Fuel, Report Says

By Daniel Stacey

SYDNEY--Analysis of the final ping transmission between Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and an Inmarsat PLC satellite found the missing jetliner was likely descending after running out of fuel, according to Australian air-accident investigators.

Investigators remain confident Flight 370 crashed into a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean within around 25 nautical miles of the final ping transmission, despite an initial underwater search and lengthy air-and-sea hunt for floating debris failing to find any trace of the plane.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said its conclusion about the plane's likely location relied on calculations of how long it took the plane to descend plus a five nautical mile margin for error in the analysis of the satellite data. The bureau's conclusions--outlined in a series of reports on its website--come as authorities prepare to open up the hunt for the plane to private contractors through a public tender next week.

Flight 370's final digital handshake with the satellite didn't coincide with previous regular hourly transmissions. That is likely due to its electrical systems resetting when the plane ran out of fuel, the ATSB summary said, confirming earlier reports in The Wall Street Journal.

Modeling of fuel burn at various flight paths and aircraft speeds support the idea that Flight 370 ran out of fuel near the final ping arc, it said.

The ATSB also said for the first time that the search area intersects the only air route that passes down through the southeastern Indian Ocean, route M641, which travels from Cocos Island to Perth through four way points.

The overlap of the Cocos-Perth air route and search area may be a coincidence, with investigators still unsure about the plane's navigation during its final hours. Air routes are preprogrammed into flight computers and can be navigated without human intervention, raising the possibility that none of the crew were conscious when the plane crashed.

Authorities are also trying a new approach to help refine the search area: listening to audio captured by special underwater microphones spread across the ocean, which are typically used to monitor signs of illegal nuclear explosions. The microphones have long been deployed as part of the United Nations Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The Australian naval vessel Ocean Shield is due to give up the search on Wednesday, having scoured a narrow area close to where it detected electronic signals on four occasions in early April. Authorities believed those transmissions were consistent with locator beacons on an aircraft's black box flight recorders, raising hopes of a breakthrough in the hunt for Flight 370, which went missing en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8 with 239 people on board.

The Ocean Shield's departure will leave the Chinese survey vessel Zhu Kezhen alone in the search area, carrying out early work to map the seabed. The ATSB said it would take up to three months to map the entire area some 1,000 miles northwest of Perth, with an additional ship from a private contractor being deployed in early June to scan the ocean floor at depths of up to 6,000 meters.

The results will enable towed sonar equipment to be deployed without the risk of it banging into undersea ridges and mountains.

Write to Daniel Stacey at daniel.stacey@wsj.com

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