Sailors Try to Retrieve Objects Seen in Hunt for Malaysian Plane

An Australian naval ship hunting for the missing Malaysian jet sought to retrieve objects spotted by plane in the southern Indian Ocean as the scheduling of a late-night press conference by Malaysia’s prime minister raised optimism that the two-week search has yielded first results.

An Australian Air Force P3 Orion saw a gray or green circular object and an orange rectangular item, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement on its website. The HMAS Success “is on scene and is attempting to locate the objects,” AMSA said. A forecast for worsening weather threatened to hamper search efforts on their 17th day.

The items are separate from those reported by Chinese aircraft earlier today which a U.S. Navy plane then failed to locate, the authority said. The crew of a Chinese IL-76 plane reported sighting two “relatively big” floating objects, state-run Xinhua News Agency said.

flightmap_small2 Sailors Try to Retrieve Objects Seen in Hunt for Malaysian Plane

“Time is really not on our side,” Lt. David Levy, a spokesman for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, said by phone from the USS Blue Ridge in the South China Sea. “But we’re going to keep going. That’s our mission.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak scheduled a press briefing for 10 p.m. in Kuala Lumpur, where he plans to brief on the search efforts. Australia’s Amsa said the Success had not found any objects and that the search zone is now in darkness, spokeswoman Andrea Hayward-Maher said by phone.

Square Object

The objects spotted by the Australian plane were in an area about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told lawmakers in Canberra, without providing coordinates. A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft as well as an Orion plane each from Australia and Japan are either in the search area or headed there, Abbott said.

The objects could be received by tomorrow morning at the latest, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a briefing in Kuala Lumpur today.

Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) Flight 370 vanished from radar on March 8 and hasn’t been found. The Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200ER with 239 people on board was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

Chinese aircraft photographed a square floating object, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing today. The icebreaker Xuelong and three Chinese naval ships are due to arrive in the search area tomorrow or Wednesday, Hong said.

Nothing Conclusive

The Chinese asked for Australian aircraft to further scan the area around the coordinates of 95.1113 degrees east longitude and 42.5453 south latitude, Xinhua said. Many white smaller objects were scattered within a radius of several kilometers of the two objects, the agency said.

AMSA will attempt to locate the objects sighted by the Chinese aircraft, it said in an e-mail.

Police have interviewed more than 100 people, including families of the pilot and co-pilot, Hishammuddin said. Authorities are considering releasing a copy of the transcript of the pilot’s conversations with the ground, he said. Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police will brief the press tomorrow.

A home-computer flight simulator belonging to the jet’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, has produced no clear leads for investigators, Hishammuddin said.

Pinger Locator

Flight 370 was carrying wooden pallets, Hishammuddin said. The aircraft also carried 200 kilograms of lithium-ion batteries, radios and fruit. “There are new leads, but nothing conclusive,” he said of the search.

A 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, Mike Barton, an AMSA official, told reporters yesterday.

A New Zealand P3 Orion surveillance plane dispatched to the scene found only clumps of seaweed, and a merchant ship was diverted to the area.

The U.S. Navy is sending a black-box locator “closer to the search area,” Cmdr. Chris Budde, U.S. Seventh Fleet Operations Officer, said in an e-mailed statement. The Towed Pinger Locator System, pulled by a vessel at speeds from one to five knots, can detect the black-box pinger to a depth of about 20,000 feet, he said.

Air France

The black box is supposed to emit pings for 30 days after becoming immersed in water. While black boxes are designed to withstand depths of 20,000 feet and may work in even deeper water, the range of the pings is a mile, according to manuals from Honeywell International (HON) Inc., the maker of the equipment.

The ocean in the area is about 1 kilometer to 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) deep, AMSA said by e-mail.

Two locators and a third one attached to a faster-moving French nuclear submarine covered about 22,000 square kilometers in 31 days in their search for Air France flight 447, according to a 2009 report into the operation.

The beacon wasn’t located during that hunt and the crashed Airbus Group NV A330 was only found two years later in an underwater sonar search.

About two-thirds of Flight 370’s passengers were Chinese, spurring China to rush assets to help solve what has become the longest-running disappearance of an airliner in the modern era. The Chinese aircraft are Ilyushin Il-76 jets, a four-engine model that has seen service as a transport and military airborne command center.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss warned of the advance of an Indian Ocean storm toward seas in the search zone already known for high swells. “The forecasts ahead are not all that good,” Truss said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio interview.

Civilian Volunteers

Severe Tropical Cyclone Gillian was moving south but wouldn’t have “any impact” on the area, Edward Boyles, a Perth-based forecaster with the Bureau of Meteorology said in an interview. “There will be moderate to fresh winds and lots of low clouds, which won’t be great conditions for the search.”

China’s aircraft were among the 10 flying off Australia’s west coast today in a zone covering 68,000 square kilometers (26,250 square miles), Truss said. Eight planes came up empty yesterday trying to locate a floating object spotted by a Chinese satellite.

Three civilian planes — two Bombardier Inc. Global business jets and an Airbus Group NV (AIR) aircraft — participated today, with 20 volunteer civilian observers.

Subsea Vehicle

China’s satellite imagery depicted a floating object 22.5 meters (74 feet) long. The 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 satellite 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.

The Royal Australian Navy’s Ocean Shield, equipped with a subsea remotely operated vehicle, and the HMS Echo, a specialist ship from Britain’s Royal Navy fitted with underwater listening gear and devices to survey the seabed, were on their way to the zone.

Northern Zone

The U.S. was asked by Malaysia to provide similar search technology, the Defense Department said in a statement.

An analysis of satellite pings shows the Malaysian jet may have flown steadily across the ocean after diverting from its scheduled route. That assessment gave the clearest idea yet on how investigators pinpointed a search zone.

Malaysia’s 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.

Through March 21, the U.S. spent $2.5 million on the search, according to Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman. The Pentagon has set aside $4 million, which includes the expense for sending two destroyers, helicopters and patrol aircraft, Warren told reporters in Washington.