Severe weather on Thursday halted the air search for a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet presumed crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, frustrating hopes of finding what new satellite images showed could be a large debris field.
An international search team of 11 military and civilian aircraft and five ships had been heading to an area where more than 100 objects that could be from the Boeing 777 had been identified by French satellite pictures earlier this week.
“The forecast in the area was calling for severe icing, severe turbulence and near-zero visibility,” said Lieutenant Commander Adam Schantz, the officer in charge of the U.S. Navy Poseidon P8 maritime surveillance aircraft detachment.
“Anybody who’s out there is coming home and all additional sorties from here are canceled.”
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the effort, confirmed flights had been called off but said ships continued to search, correcting an earlier statement that had said all operations had been suspended.
Flight MH370 is thought to have crashed on March 8 with the loss of all 239 people aboard after flying thousands of miles off course.
The latest satellite images were captured by France-based Airbus Defence & Space on Monday and showed 122 potential objects in a 400 sq km (155 sq mile) area of ocean.
“We have now had four separate satellite leads, from Australia, China and France, showing possible debris,” Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur late Wednesday. “It is now imperative that we link the debris to MH370.”
The flight vanished from civilian radar screens less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing, and investigators believe someone onboard may have shut off the plane’s communications systems. Theories range from a hijacking to sabotage or a possible suicide by one of the pilots, but investigators have not ruled out technical problems.
Partial military radar tracking showed the plane turning west off its scheduled course over the South China Sea and then recrossing the Malay Peninsula, apparently under the control of a skilled pilot.
The logistical difficulties of the search have been highlighted by the failure so far to get a lock on possible debris, despite the now numerous satellite images and direct visual sightings from aircraft and ships.
The search area, some 2,500 km (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, has some of the deepest and roughest waters in the world.
One day had already been lost earlier this week because weather conditions were too dangerous for the search crews, which come from Australia, the United States, New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea.
Recovery of wreckage could unlock clues about why and how the plane had diverted so far off course in one of aviation’s most puzzling mysteries.
The United States has sent an undersea Navy drone and a high-tech black box detector which will be fitted to an Australian ship due in Perth in the coming days.
The so-called black boxes – the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder – record what happens during flight, but time is running out to pick up their locator beacons, which stop about a month after a crash due to limited battery life.
The prolonged and so far fruitless search and investigation have taken a toll, with dozens of distraught relatives of 150 Chinese passengers clashing with police and accusing Malaysia of “delays and deception”.
Chinese insurance companies have started paying compensation to the families of passengers, state news agency Xinhua said on Thursday.
The family of Paul Weeks, a New Zealander on board the Malaysia Airlines flight, said they had been angered by the way the airline has dealt with the families of passengers.
“The whole situation has been handled appallingly, incredible insensitivity, lack of information,” Weeks’ sister Sara Weeks told Radio Live in New Zealand.