Patrol planes are resuming the hunt for Malaysia’s missing jetliner in the Indian Ocean off Australia after an initial foray failed to find objects seen in satellite images that kindled hopes for a breakthrough.
Four aircraft will scour an area about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth today, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement. One merchant ship remains in the area, with another due to arrive overnight and the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Success set to be on station by tomorrow.
Satellite photos taken March 16 showed at least two objects on the ocean surface, said John Young, general manager of emergency response at the maritime agency. The largest piece is about 24 meters in size. Ships and planes of the U.S., Australia and New Zealand are part of the search effort.
“It’s probably the best lead that we have right now, but we have to get there, find them, see them to know,” Young told reporters in Canberra yesterday. “The objects are relatively indistinct on the imagery,” he said, adding that analysis of the satellite data indicated they were “credible sightings.”
U.S. and Australian planes came up empty yesterday, and Australian Defense Minister David Johnston sounded a note of caution, saying the site is “a very long way away.”
The search area for the Boeing Co. (BA:US) 777-200ER, which went missing on March 8 with 239 people on board, narrowed in the southern Indian Ocean after an analysis of the plane’s probable fuel reserves. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation joined Malaysia’s inquiry into Malaysian Airline System Bhd. Flight 370, as authorities sought to retrieve deleted data on a computer flight simulator belonging to the plane’s captain.
Crash investigators have been disappointed before by satellite pictures that spurred hope of locating the wreckage. On March 13, China said photos taken from orbit showed objects floating in the South China Sea along the plane’s intended route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, only to backtrack later and tell Malaysia authorities the images weren’t related to Flight 370.
Investigators face a mounting challenge with the passage of time since the jet vanished, apparently after reversing course to the south and flying for hours toward a remote patch of ocean. Heavy objects from the plane would have long since sunk, while the sea would scatter lighter materials.
“Thinking back to Air France 447, where they had debris within days, it still took them two years to locate the wreckage,” said Paul Hayes, director of safety at Ascend, a London-based aviation consultant. “Here, in the open ocean, where it may even be deeper, it’s going to be a horrendous task.”
The second object is about 5 meters long, according to a copy of the satellite images AMSA provided.
A U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance plane in the area will check the sea visually as well as with radar, electro-optical scanners and infrared sensors able to scan 20 miles of ocean on either side of the aircraft, according to Lieutenant Commander Adam Schantz, the officer overseeing the jet’s operations in Perth.
Two crew members operate the devices and two more watch with binoculars, bolstered by the trio on the flight deck.
The only merchant or naval ship now in the area is the St. Petersburg, owned by Oslo-based Hoegh Autoliners AS, Chief Executive Ingar Skiaker told reporters yesterday in the Norwegian capital. The craft hasn’t turned up anything yet, and will search through the night using all its available lighting, Skiaker said.
The U.K. Ministry of Defence said that HMS Echo, a specialist survey ship usually deployed to support submarine and amphibious operations, is being diverted to support the search for the missing plane.
The vessel, equipped to collect oceanographic and bathymetric data, is now crossing the Indian Ocean and will link up with other search ships in “a matter of days,” the MoD said in response to phone calls.
While weather conditions are moderate in the southern Indian Ocean, where the search is taking place, visibility is poor, Young said yesterday. The ocean floor could be as deep as several thousand meters in that area, he said.
“Where you’ve seen the debris now may not be where the plane actually crashed,” said Terence Fan, an assistant professor at the Singapore Management University who has done research on the airline industry.
Malaysia, leading the multi-nation effort to find the aircraft, divided the search into a northern zone and a southern region.
Malaysia is sending two aircraft to Kazakhstan, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday. “Until we are certain that we have located MH370, search and rescue operations will continue in both corridors.”
A three-man investigation team from France that arrived in Kuala Lumpur March 17 is helping Malaysian authorities hunt for any transmission signal from the missing aircraft’s black boxes, said a person familiar with the team’s technical analysis.
The team from France’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis is using its experience from the successful hunt for Air France Flight 447, which vanished over the Atlantic in 2009, the person said, asking not to be named because the person isn’t authorized to speak publicly.
While black boxes are designed to operate at depths of 20,000 feet (3.8 miles) and may work in even deeper water, the range of the pings is a mile, according to manuals from Honeywell International (HON:US) Inc., the maker of the equipment. That may make the signals difficult to pick up even if an underwater microphone is over the correct location.
Young said that while the satellite images make it “worth looking” in the area, they could also be of containers that have fallen off ships.
Satellite signals emitted periodically from Flight 370 even after other communications were shut showed the jet operated for almost seven hours after last making contact. That may have taken the plane more than 3,000 miles from its last known location to the limits of the fuel on board, if it remained airborne the whole time.
The search for the Malaysian jet is the longest in modern passenger-airline history. The previous record was the 10-day search for a Boeing (BA:US) 737-400 operated by Indonesia’s PT Adam Skyconnection Airlines, which went missing off the coast of that country’s Sulawesi island Jan. 1, 2007.
Much of the area Australia is scouring extends into the Roaring Forties, a region between the 40th and 50th degrees of latitude south known for strong winds and wave conditions, according to charts previously provided by AMSA.
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