Bloomberg News

Plane Search Resumes for Object Seen by Chinese Satellite

March 23, 2014

A Chinese satellite detected an object in the southern Indian Ocean that’s almost the width of an Olympic-size swimming pool, giving renewed impetus to the hunt for the Malaysian airliner that disappeared more than two weeks ago.

The image, taken on March 18, shows an object measuring 22 meters (72-feet) by 13 meters, according to a statement from China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. The item was located 120 kilometers from where possible debris was found by satellite two days earlier.

Yesterday’s development rekindles hopes of a breakthrough in the mystery of the Malaysian Airline (MAS) Flight 370 after radar scans and visual searches failed to relocate the objects spotted in the earlier images and analysis of a flight simulator found at the home of the plane’s pilot produced no leads. The search is focused on an area of the Indian Ocean spanning 36,000 square kilometers.

“The more aircraft we have, the more ships we have, the more confident we are of recovering whatever material is down there,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters today in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, according to a transcript of his remarks. “Obviously before we can be too specific about what it might be, we do actually need to recover some of this material.”

The Chinese satellite photo is from a point 90 degrees east and almost 45 degrees south, compared with coordinates of almost 91 degrees east and 44 degrees south for the March 16 image, putting the object to the southwest of the last sighting.

Floating Objects

The dimensions of the item recorded in the latest scan appear similar to those of the larger of the two objects seen previously, which was said to be about 24 meters long. The Malaysian plane, a Boeing Co. (BA:US) 777-200, measures 63 meters long, with a wingspan of 61 meters and a cabin diameter of 6.2 meters.

“China hopes these data will be helpful to the search,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the satellite image. “It still needs to be analyzed and verified on whether or not the floating object is connected to the missing plane.”

An aircraft taking part in the visual search also spotted small objects including a wooden pallet spread over a radius of 5 kilometers, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. A New Zealand P3 Orion surveillance plane was dispatched but found only clumps of seaweed yesterday, and a merchant ship has been diverted to conduct a further examination, it said.

FBI Focus

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation joined the probe as Malaysian authorities seek to retrieve deleted data on the home-computer flight simulator belonging to the jet’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

The FBI has received from Malaysian authorities “digital media,” including information from the flight simulator’s hard drive found in Zaharie’s home, and technicians were examining the data at the bureau’s laboratory in Virginia, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the case who asked not to be named because the investigation is ongoing.

Investigators looking into the disappearance of Flight 370 are trying to learn more about what Zaharie may have been doing on the simulator, and part of that effort involves trying to examine files that may have been deleted from the drive, the official said.

Cockpit Conversation

FBI agent Michael Kortan, a spokesman for the bureau, declined to comment, referring questions to the Malaysian government. The simulator, which has been reconstructed, hasn’t produced any clear lead yet for investigators, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published what it said was a transcript of communications between the 777’s cockpit and air traffic control, which included instructions on takeoff and flight altitude. The exchange ended with the cockpit’s response of “All right, good night” at 1:19 a.m.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority, said the transcript isn’t accurate, and Hishammuddin said that the exchanges indicated nothing abnormal, though the record won’t be released publicly as it’s still being analyzed.

Neither have investigators found any link between the aircraft’s cargo, which included lithium batteries, and its disappearance, Hishammuddin said.

“My biggest concern is that if we are not able to identify the debris, having to go back to the two corridors is a huge and massive area,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”

Tropical Cyclone

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said that the jet emitted pulse-like signals to a satellite about seven hours after last making voice contact, shifting the focus of the search to two arcs, one extending north to Kazakhstan and the other into the southern Indian Ocean.

In the northern zone, there have been no indications of the missing airplane on radar in China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Laos, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Hishammuddin said.

Already facing strong currents and rough seas, the Indian Ocean search 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth could be disrupted by Tropical Cyclone Gillian, Azharuddin told reporters near Kuala Lumpur airport. The cyclone is currently further north, closer to Christmas Island.

Australia said two merchant vessels assisted in the hunt yesterday, while China deployed at least seven ships, according to the Xinhua News Agency, a flotilla that reflects the urgency it attaches to finding Flight 370, whose complement of 239 passengers and crew included more than 150 Chinese.

Military Aircraft

Four military aircraft also took part, along with two chartered ultra-long-range jets capable of five hours’ search time, compared with two hours for other planes, AMSA said. Ten State Emergency Service volunteers acted as air observers.

HMAS Success from the Royal Australian Navy was heading to the area and was due there late yesterday, AMSA said. Britain is sending HMS Echo, a specialist ship with underwater listening gear and equipment, to survey the seabed.

The U.S., which is also searching the southern Indian Ocean, was asked by Malaysia to provide underwater search technology, the Defense Department said in a statement.

A U.S. P3-C Orion plane is operating out of Malaysia and is scanning south of the country in the vicinity of the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail. The plane had previously been searching for debris in the Bay of Bengal.

‘Big Area’

U.S. spending on the hunt has cost $2.5 million so far, Warren said. The department has set aside $4 million, a sum that includes the expense of sending two destroyers, helicopters and patrol aircraft.

“Although this search area is much smaller than what we started with, it nonetheless is a big area when you’re looking out the window and trying to see something by eye,” John Young, general manager of emergency response at AMSA, said March 21. “We may have to do this a few times to be confident about the coverage.”

An analysis of satellite pings shows that the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. 777 may have flown steadily across the ocean after diverting from its scheduled route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. That assessment gave the clearest idea yet on how investigators pinpointed a search zone.

Engineers at Inmarsat Plc (ISAT), whose satellite picked up the pings, plotted seven positions for the jet on March 8, Chris McLaughlin, a company spokesman, said in an interview. The plane flew steadily away from the satellite over the equator while pinging, McLaughlin said.

Logical Path

The data helped investigators conclude that the most logical path was progressively either north or south. U.S. investigators have focused the search to the south, where Australia is leading the scouring of the ocean.

“We have now had a number of very credible leads and there is increasing hope, no more than hope, no more than hope, that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen to this ill-fated aircraft,” Abbott said.

When officials estimated the plane was flying at or near its cruising speed of more than 800 kilometers per hour, it produced a probable path the engineers were “very confident” about, McLaughlin said.

The engineers don’t know the plane’s track for certain because the satellite pings can only be used to estimate an arc along the Earth’s surface where it would have been, he said.

“You can assume the tracking was based on what the autopilot was set for on the 777,” he said.

Last Ping

If the Inmarsat estimates are accurate, it would have been impossible for the plane to have landed before its satellite transmitter sent the last ping at 8:11 a.m., almost seven hours after it left Malaysian airspace, according to McLaughlin’s account. Because more fuel is burned at lower altitudes, it also suggests the plane remained at cruising altitude.

The plane was flying at 872 kph at 10,668 meters at 1:21 a.m. when its transponder stopped functioning and it disappeared from Malaysian’s civilian radar system, according to FlightRadar24, a flight-tracking company.

The engineers at Inmarsat were able to validate their estimates of the plane’s location by matching its position at 1:07 a.m., when it sent a burst of data through its Aircraft Communications and Reporting System, McLaughlin said. That final transmission on Acars included a GPS position that was used to calibrate the other estimates, he said.

The Inmarsat analysis is consistent with details suggesting that, at least initially, the path was commanded from the cockpit, John Cox, president of Washington-based Safety Operating Systems, said in an interview.

It still doesn’t answer what may have happened to the plane and what led it to fly for so long, he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net; Angus Whitley in Sydney at awhitley1@bloomberg.net; Michael Heath in Sydney at mheath1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at anandk@bloomberg.net; Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net Don Frederick, Nancy Moran


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