Australia is poised to resume air patrols over the Indian Ocean for the missing Malaysian airliner after French satellite scans bolstered Chinese findings with evidence of objects adrift in the search area.
Eight planes came up empty yesterday as they scoured a region spanning 59,000 square kilometers (22,800 square miles) off Australia’s west coast. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority hasn’t given a breakdown yet today on how many planes and ships will be part of the hunt once daylight returns.
The images captured from space rekindled prospects for a breakthrough in the mystery of Malaysian Air Flight 370. A Chinese satellite photo depicted a floating object 22.5 meters (74 feet) long, and Malaysia’s transport ministry said French authorities shared data showing “potential objects in the vicinity” of the surveillance zone.
“I hope that we’ll find the time soon when we’re able to conclusively say once and for all that we are close to finding where this plane may now be located, and that there can be some kind of closure for families,” Australia Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told reporters yesterday. “We will continue as long as there’s hope.”
Radar echoes detected floating debris 2,300 kilometers from Perth, and extra satellites are being mobilized to pursue the search, France’s foreign affairs ministry said, without giving a date or coordinates for the find. Malaysia said the information was relayed to Australian authorities.
AMSA didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for details about today’s planned missions in a search that spans Australian, New Zealand and U.S. planes and a multinational naval-and-commercial flotilla in some of the world’s most-remote ocean waters. The nearest airfield is 2,500 kilometers away.
“The aircraft are operating at extreme ranges,” Mike Barton, an AMSA official, said yesterday. “They’re operating at the limits of their endurance and only having a short period of one to two hours in the search area.”
The geographic focus of the hunt only adds to the questions about the fate of Flight 370. The Boeing Co. 777-200ER flown by Malaysian Airline System Bhd. vanished March 8 with 239 people aboard on a flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur that shouldn’t have gone anywhere near the southern Indian Ocean.
About two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese, spurring the government in Beijing to deploy assets in the air, at sea and in space to solve what has become the longest-running disappearance of an airliner in the modern era.
The Chinese satellite picture, taken March 18, is focused 90 degrees east and almost 45 degrees south, versus almost 91 degrees east and 44 degrees south for similar items on a March 16 satellite image, according to China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. That put the object 120 kilometers southwest of the earlier sighting, the administration said.
The dimensions appear similar to those of the larger of two objects seen previously, said to be 24 meters long. A Boeing 777-200 is 63 meters long, with a wingspan of 61 meters and a diameter of 6.2 meters.
Separately, the wooden pallet spotted from a civil search aircraft was among a number of small objects spread over 5 kilometers and could be of the kind used in planes, AMSA’s Barton told reporters yesterday. The pallet appeared to show evidence of multicolored strapping belts, he said.
“The use of wooden pallets is quite common in the industry,” Barton said. “They’re usually packed into another container which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft.”
A New Zealand P3 Orion surveillance plane dispatched to the scene found only clumps of seaweed. Yesterday’s use of eight planes marked an increase from six previously, and included four long-range civil aircraft and a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon.
There were “no sightings of significance” before nightfall, AMSA said.
A growing fleet of surface vessels is converging on the area as well.
HMAS Success from the Royal Australian Navy has joined the search, while the Ocean Shield, equipped with a subsea remotely operated vehicle, is on its way to the zone, as is HMS Echo, a specialist ship from Britain’s Royal Navy that’s fitted with underwater listening gear and devices to survey the seabed.
The U.S. was asked by Malaysia to provide similar search technology, the Defense Department said in a statement.
“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 said yesterday in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, according to a transcript. “Obviously before we can be too specific about what it might be, we do actually need to recover some of this material.”
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.
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. The bulk of search efforts are focused on the south.
There is a risk of foul weather in the region, as Severe Tropical Cyclone Gillian tracks slowly south from a location about 2,500 kilometers northwest of Perth, said Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority.
In the northern zone, there have been no indications of the missing airplane on radar in China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Laos, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said.
Hishammuddin said a home-computer flight simulator belonging to the jet’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, has produced no clear leads for investigators.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has received “digital media” from Malaysian authorities, including information from the simulator’s hard drive, and technicians are examining the data, according to a law enforcement official who asked not to be named because the probe is active. Michael Kortan, an FBI spokesman, declined to comment.
Some U.S. lawmakers renewed criticism of Malaysia’s government yesterday, saying they saw too little evidence of cooperation and too much emphasis on searching along a putative northern route taken by Flight 370.
“Across the board people are looking for more in the way of openness from the Malaysian government in terms of sharing the information they have in a timely manner,” Representative Patrick Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican and a former federal prosecutor, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
Through March 21, the U.S. spent $2.5 million on the hunt, according to a Defense Department spokesman, Army Colonel Steve Warren. The Pentagon has set aside $4 million, a sum that includes the expense for sending two destroyers, helicopters and patrol aircraft, Warren told reporters in Washington.
With assistance from Jason Scott in Canberra, Michael Sin and David Fickling in Sydney, Barry Porter and Manirajan Ramasamy in Kuala Lumpur, Shamim Adam in Singapore, Gopal Ratnam, John Hughes, Del Quentin Wilber, Michelle Jamrisko and Greg Giroux in Washington, Aipeng Soo in Beijing and Marie Mawad in Paris.
To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at [email protected]; Angus Whitley in Sydney at [email protected]; Michael Heath in Sydney at [email protected] To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at [email protected]; Bernard Kohn at [email protected] Ed Dufner, Kevin Miller.