Search planes hunting the missing Malaysian jetliner failed to locate objects spotted by satellite in the Indian Ocean west of Australia after the images kindled optimism for a breakthrough in a mystery now in its 13th day.
A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon returned to Perth after coming up empty, while an Australian P3 Orion couldn’t find anything as clouds and rain damped visibility. Australian Defense Minister David Johnston sounded a note of caution, saying there is a lot of debris in the water, with the site “a very long way away.”
Satellite photos taken March 16 showed at least two objects in an area 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, said John Young, general manager of emergency response at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. The largest piece is about 24 meters in size. Ships and planes of the U.S., Australia and New Zealand will scour the area.
“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 before the planes returned. “The objects are relatively indistinct on the imagery,” he said, adding that analysis of the satellite data indicated they were “credible sightings.”
The search area for the Boeing Co. 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 pilot.
“Even if they were to find debris from the aircraft now, it’s already 13 days after the plane disappeared,” said Paul Hayes, director of safety at Ascend, a London-based aviation consultant. “Thinking back to Air France 447, where they had debris within days, it still took them two years to locate the wreckage. 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, according to a copy of the satellite images AMSA provided.
Four aircraft including a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft and an Orion plane from New Zealand were sent to the area where the objects were sighted. Also deployed was the Royal Australian Navy Ship HMAS Success.
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 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 from the Gulf 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. 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 today. “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 box, 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 an Air France plane that 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 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. It’s possible the objects spotted by the satellite may not be related to the plane, he said.
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, which lost contact with air traffic control less than an hour after leaving Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. en route to Beijing on March 8, is the longest in modern passenger-airline history. The previous record was the 10-day search for a Boeing 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 provided by AMSA previously.
Malaysian Air officials briefed the passengers’ relatives on the latest findings, said Selamat Omar, whose son Mohd Khairul Amri, 29, was one of the passengers.
“We are still waiting for them to confirm if it is really the remains of the plane,” Omar said by phone. “I hope it is not and will continue praying for the safety of my son and everyone on board.”
Security at Beijing’s Hotel Lido, where friends and relatives of Chinese passengers on board the missing plane are lodged, was enhanced. Uniformed policemen were deployed and hotel guards were manning the doors to a room where relatives huddled as news trickled in about the Australian findings.
“For me, it’s false news again — I don’t believe this,” said Wen Wancheng, 63, of Jinan province. “I believe my son is still alive.”
Others also echoed the same hope. Liu, who only gave his family name, said the longest he had slept in the past 12 nights was about two hours.
“I still hold this hope,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “Even I know the chance is less than one out of ten thousand that news will come that the airplane is hijacked and my brother is still alive.”