MH370 search looks for debris breakthrough in new area
Despite having access to considerable assets, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the search teams faced a formidable task given the distances involved
Agence France Press in Perth
Searchers scouring the Indian Ocean for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 were hoping on Saturday to salvage debris for the first time which could finally confirm whether the jet plunged into the sea.
But despite having access to considerable assets, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the search teams faced a formidable task given the distances involved.
“We should not underestimate the difficulty of this work, it is an extraordinarily remote location,” he told reporters on Saturday.
“We are trying to find small bits of wreckage in a vast ocean. While we’re throwing everything we have at it, the task goes on.”
Planes attached to the multinational operation spotted “multiple objects” floating in the water on Friday after the focus of the search moved to a new area on the strength of fresh data indicating the plane was flying faster than first thought before it disappeared on March 8.
Authorities stressed that the items sighted could not be verified as coming from MH370 until they were physically examined and ships from China and Australia were steaming to the search zone in an effort to locate them.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said on late Friday that one Chinese ship, the Haixun 01, was already in the area “and will be in a position to relocate the objects on Saturday”.
By late Friday, the Haixun 01 had reported no major sightings except for “a few light-coloured, palm-size floating objects”, official state news agency Xinhua said.
An Australian naval vessel, HMAS Success, is also expected to reach the area late Saturday and four more Chinese ships are on their way. More than two-thirds of the 239 people on board the flight were Chinese.
New Zealand Air Vice-Marshal Kevin Short said spotters from a New Zealand Orion plane saw 11 objects in the sea, most of them rectangular and ranging in size from 50-100 centimetres.
“Our crew couldn’t identify anything that would say it was definitely from the Malaysian aircraft,” he said. “I think the main issue is that those objects will have to be picked up by a ship so they can physically examine them.”
Ten aircraft from six countries -- Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States -- are involved in the search, which is taking place far off Western Australia and about 1,100 kilometres northeast of where initial efforts were focused.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the new search area, “although more focused than before, remains considerable; and the search conditions, although easier than before, remain challenging”.
New search zone
The revised search sector - about the size of Norway - was “based on continuing analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before radar contact was lost (with MH370)”, AMSA said.
“It indicated that the aircraft was travelling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel usage and reducing the possible distance the aircraft travelled south into the Indian Ocean.”
The new area is closer to land, meaning planes can spend more time searching before having to return to refuel, and enjoys better weather than seas further south where the search had been concentrated.
Satellite sightings of unidentified debris by several nations in recent days in the previous zone raised hopes of finding wreckage from the Boeing 777, but nothing was retrieved as rough weather plagued the search.
Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately redirected by someone on board and flown thousands of miles southwards, but nothing else is known.
“This is a credible new lead and will be thoroughly investigated today,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said of the revised search area.
Malaysian officials said the new zone was identified following an analysis of radar data by experts from Boeing who have joined an international investigation team in Kuala Lumpur.
They took MH370’s estimated speed when it was briefly tracked by Malaysian military radar shortly after it diverted to the west -- the last time MH370 appeared on radar.
The new search area is around 1,850 kilometres west of Perth. Australia is re-positioning its satellites to focus on it.
Black box deadline
As the search moves to the new area, the clock is ticking on the tracking signal emitted by the plane’s “black box” of flight data, which lasts about 30 days.
The US Pacific Fleet has moved specialised black box locator equipment to Perth, poised to begin searching once an approximate crash site is established.
“It’s critical to continue searching for debris so we can reverse-forecast the wind, current and sea state since March 8 to recreate the position where MH370 possibly went into the water,” said Commander Tom Moneymaker, US 7th Fleet oceanographer.
Seeking closure, anguished families of the plane’s passengers and crew are desperately awaiting solid evidence that might unlock one of aviation’s greatest riddles.
Until then, many have refused to accept the Malaysian government’s conclusion that the plane went down at sea.
Underscoring simmering tensions, on Friday in Beijing hundreds of Chinese family members walked out of a briefing by Malaysian officials, who were left to stare at ranks of empty chairs while a relatives’ representative berated them.