|Satellite spots objects in Indian Ocean; search for Malaysian plane expands south|
|Thursday, March 20, 2014 8:14 PM|
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Search planes flew out of Australia today to scour rough seas in one of the remotest places on Earth for objects that may be from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
In what one official called the “best lead” of the nearly 2-week-old aviation mystery, a satellite detected two large objects floating off the southwest coast of Australia about halfway to the desolate islands of the Antarctic.
The area in the southern Indian Ocean is so remote is takes aircraft longer to fly there — four hours — than it allows for the search.
The discovery raised new hope of finding the vanished jet and sent another emotional jolt to the families of the 239 people aboard.
A search Thursday with four planes in cloud and rain found nothing, and Australian authorities said early today efforts were resuming with the first of five aircraft — a Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion — leaving at dawn for the area about 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) from western Australia.
A civilian Gulfstream jet and a second Orion were to depart later this morning and a third Orion was due to fly out in the early afternoon to scour more than 23,000 square kilometers (8,880 square miles) of ocean.
A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft was scheduled to leave the base at about 4 p.m. (0600 GMT), but like the other planes, it will have enough fuel for only two to three hours of search time before returning to Perth.
A New Zealand P-3 Orion plane took part in the unsuccessful search Thursday, and Mike Yardley, an air commodore with New Zealand’s air force, said the plane was forced to duck below thick clouds and fog to a very low altitude of 60 meters (200 feet), hampering the operation.
But Yardley was optimistic that the searchers will find the objects. “We will find it — I’m sure about that piece of it. The only reason we wouldn’t find it was that it has sunk,” he said of the large unidentified object spotted by the satellite.
“I’ve been on these missions before when it’s taken a few days to come across it,” he said.
Warren Truss, Australia’s acting prime minister while Tony Abbott is overseas, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that weather conditions in the search area were poor and may get worse.
“And so clearly this is a very, very difficult and challenging search. Weather conditions are not particularly good and risk that they may deteriorate,” Truss said.
One of the objects on the satellite image was 24 meters (almost 80 feet) long and the other was 5 meters (15 feet). There could be other objects in the area, a four-hour flight from Australia, John Young, manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division, said Thursday.
“This is a lead, it’s probably the best lead we have right now,” Young said. He cautioned that the objects could be seaborne debris along a shipping route where containers can fall off cargo vessels, although the larger object is longer than a standard container.
Truss said officials were checking more satellite images with stronger resolution to find out how far the objects might have shifted since the initial images were captured. “They will have moved because of tides and wind and the like, so the search area is quite broad,” Truss said, adding marker buoys were dropped to help get a better understanding of what drift is likely to have occurred.
The Norwegian cargo vessel Hoegh St. Petersburg, with a Filipino crew of 20, arrived in the area and used lights to search overnight before resuming a visual search today, said Ingar Skiaker of Hoegh Autoliners, speaking to reporters in Oslo.
The Norwegian ship, which transports cars, was on its way from South Africa to Australia, he said. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said another commercial ship and an Australian navy vessel were also en route to the search area.
Three Chinese naval ships were heading to the area. China’s search and rescue agency also said it had asked the country’s Oceanic Administration to dispatch the icebreaker Xue Long (the Snow Dragon), which was in Perth following a voyage to the Antarctica in January, to take part in the search.