Satellites again spot debris in search area for Flight 370

Satellites again spot debris in search area for Flight 370

Flying Officer Benjamin Hepworth pilots a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion search plane as part of efforts over the Indian Ocean to spot debris from Malaysia Flight 370.
Justin Benson-Cooper/Pool via The New York Times

Pearce Air Force Base, Australia:  The search for a missing Malaysia Airlines jet entered its third week Sunday, as data from a French satellite buttressed the theory that the plane might have fallen into the southern Indian Ocean, far off the west coast of Australia, where a multinational search for clues has expanded. But the day ended without any wreckage being found.

Australia and China have released blurry satellite images of objects floating in the sea, and officials said those might be wreckage from the Boeing 777-200, which disappeared March 8 after leaving Kuala Lumpur for a routine night flight to Beijing. Now a French satellite has also detected objects in the southern Indian Ocean that might be related to Flight 370, the Malaysian Ministry of Transport said in a statement.

France's Foreign Affairs Ministry said the possible debris was spotted using satellite-based radar but gave no other details about the image or the objects' precise location. Yet the announcement appears likely to reinforce a belief that the plane fell into the ocean far off western Australia after veering sharply from its planned route. Investigators say they believe military radar and satellite signals indicate the plane cut across mainland Malaysia, headed west over the Indian Ocean and then possibly south toward where Australia has organized a search involving New Zealand and the United States. Britain, China and Japan have also sent military planes and ships to aid the hunt.

Flight Lt. Russel Adams, the pilot of an Australian P-3 military aircraft that spent more than 10 hours Sunday searching for debris, said weather conditions had deteriorated in parts of the search zone.

"There was cloud down to the surface," he told reporters minutes after landing at the base here, about 30 miles north of the western Australia city of Perth.

But the search area is vast, and a statement by the 7th Fleet of the U.S. Navy said that the overall weather conditions in the southern Indian Ocean were much clearer Sunday than the previous few days, allowing for full use of electronic and visual search tools.

The search is focused on an area about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth. On Sunday eight aircraft, including a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon, were to patrol the area. Two Chinese transport aircraft that arrived here Saturday will join the search operations Monday, Australian authorities said. Two Japanese patrol planes were also joining the effort.

On Saturday, the Chinese government said one of its satellites had spotted an "unusual object" Tuesday in an area where Australia had already organized a search. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the country's planes and ships would try to reach the area and look for the whitish object, about 74 feet by 43 feet. It was observed about 65 nautical miles southwest of the spot where, two days earlier, another satellite had captured similar images of floating objects, which the Australian government said might be wreckage from Flight 370.

Experts on satellite imagery and open-ocean recovery said the two sightings might be of the same object or objects, and that might give the search teams more information with which to calculate ocean currents and drift speeds, turn back the clock and estimate where the plane might have struck the ocean sometime after 8 a.m. Malaysia time on March 8.

"If you are assuming that the object seen by the satellites on March 16th and the 18th is debris from this aircraft, we can calculate the drift of that object over that period of time," said David Mearns, director of Blue Water Recoveries, a British marine salvage company. The company has been involved in several high-profile searches for aircraft that crashed at sea, including the 2009 Air France crash in the Atlantic Ocean.

Such calculations might enable investigators to estimate where the debris would have gone since and direct the search accordingly, Mearns said.

There is no evidence that the debris from either Indian Ocean sighting is from the missing airliner. On Saturday, a New Zealand P-3 Orion patrol plane flew over the area and reported sighting only "clumps of seaweed," the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is overseeing the search, said Sunday. Early search efforts were plagued by sightings of debris that turned out to be false leads, including a satellite image from the South China Sea released by the same Chinese agency that released the new picture Saturday.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, who was on a trip to Papua New Guinea, said Sunday that the Chinese images were consistent with the images he announced in Parliament on Thursday.

"Obviously, we have now had a number of very credible leads and there is increasing hope, no more than hope, that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen," Abbott was quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. as saying.

After comparing the pictures released by both governments, Sean O'Connor, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer who is a consultant to IHS Jane's for imagery analysis, said, "It looks consistent with what the Australian picture shows." Currents may have pushed the object to a new location during the intervening period, he said.

The coordinates provided with the Chinese satellite images are consistent with the location of the last recorded "ping" that Inmarsat, a satellite communications company, detected from the missing plane, according to a person familiar with the coordinates that Inmarsat submitted to Malaysian investigators. Inmarsat declined to comment.

Flight 370 was about 40 minutes into a six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it stopped communicating with air traffic controllers and changed course. Onboard were 239 people, including two infants.

Signals that the plane transmitted to a satellite - the last one at 8:11 a.m., more than seven hours after the jet took off - allowed investigators to say that the plane took one of two broad paths, one south to the current focus of search operations or the other north across the Asian continent.

On Saturday, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein of Malaysia said that seven countries - China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Myanmar and Pakistan - had seen nothing to suggest the plane took the north route.

"Based on preliminary analysis, there have been no sightings of the aircraft on their radars," he said at a news conference.

More than two dozen countries are on the hunt from land, air, space and sea for any visible sign of the plane. Investigators from law enforcement and aviation safety agencies from around the globe have combed through the backgrounds of all the passengers and so far have revealed no potential suspects. The Malaysian police are investigating the backgrounds of the plane's pilot and first officer. So far, there is no proof that the plane's disappearance was caused by human intervention, nor is there any conclusive evidence that it was caused by a mechanical malfunction or an onboard accident, such as an electrical fire.

Locating the wreckage of the missing aircraft and, most important, the black box that recorded information about its operations during its final hours, would be crucial to determining what happened on Flight 370, and putting to rest a flood of rumor and speculation, said Simon Bennett, director of the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester in Britain, who studies aviation safety and risk management.

"In all likelihood, we may never ascertain what happened to MH370, which is a real shame, because then the speculation will simply accelerate and mount up," he said. "What actually needs to happen is that we need to find the hull, find the flight recorders, and then carefully deconstruct what happened. But in the middle of all that is this blizzard of insane conjecture."

(Thomas Fuller reported from Pearce Air Force Base and Michael Forsythe from Sepang, Malaysia. Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Sepang, Nicola Clark from Paris and Michelle Innis from Sydney.)
© 2014, The New York Times News Service

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