New images ‘most credible’ lead yet on plane

Satelite images from Thailand's Geo Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency taken on March 24 show possible plane debris in the southern Indian Ocean. (No audio) (Reuters)

— A Thai satellite spotted 300 floating objects in the southern Indian Ocean, where authorities say the flight of the missing Malaysia Airlines ended more than three weeks ago.

The images were taken on Monday by the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency, a Thai space research agency, and show objects spread over a 1,600-square-mile area, according to the South China Morning Post.

Severe weather hampered the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane on Thursday, as planes set out in the morning to pursue new leads from French satellite images revealed Wednesday only to turn back a few hours later.

Five ships continued scouring the section in the southern Indian Ocean where authorities think the mysterious flight ended more than three weeks ago.

The Australian-led search is trying to find the debris indicated by new satellite images taken in recent days showing more than 100 objects floating in the Indian Ocean that may have come from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Wednesday.

The images, which Hishammuddin called the “most credible” lead so far in the search for the vanished Boeing 777 airliner, revealed items in the water nearly 1,600 miles from Perth, Australia. The images, taken Sunday, were provided by France’s Airbus Defence and Space company.

France gave Malaysian authorities the new information Tuesday, and an analysis by Malaysia’s remote-sensing agency identified 122 objects, some as long as 75 feet. The Malaysian government said it has since shared the information with the Australian authorities leading the search in the southern Indian Ocean.

“We cannot tell whether the potential objects are from MH370,” Hishammuddin said. “Nevertheless, this is another new lead that will help direct the search operation.”

The images mark the fourth set of data from satellites showing objects that may have come from the plane drifting in the remote waters of the Indian Ocean.

“The floating debris combined with the satellite data are a powerful combination,” said Dave Gallo, who searched the ocean bottom for the black box of an Air France flight that went down in 2009. “That gives them the center of the haystack. Track record shows that an aircraft will be very close to that last known position.”

A new surge of planes and ships arrived to assist in the growing hunt for the missing aircraft, which local government officials say went down in the southern Indian Ocean with 239 people on board on March 8, far off its planned flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday that searchers have been able to see a “considerable” number of objects.

“Bad weather and inaccessibility has so far prevented any of it being recovered, but we are confident that some will be,” he said.

Aircraft and ships from six countries — Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Japan, China and South Korea — have been trying to cover a nearly 50,000-square-mile area. The hurdles remain daunting. The area is a four-hour flight from Perth, the base of the Australian-led search. Because of fuel constraints, planes have only two to four hours to look before having to turn back.

A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon and 10other planes were supposed to search in the area Wednesday, with four more on the way, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. After a number of days when only the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Success was available to follow up on any sightings in the sprawling area, four Chinese ships have arrived.

The sheer challenge of this stage in the search was apparent Wednesday. Observers saw three objects in the area late in the day — two items that were likely rope, plus a blue object. When the planes flew overhead again to take a look, they could not spot the objects.

In addition, the search area Wednesday included the location where satellites picked up signs of 122 objects. Aside from the three objects spotted briefly, there were no other sightings of debris.

“The P-8 sees non-wreckage debris or other objects in the water on every flight,” said Cmdr. William J. Marks, spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet. “These have included trash, seaweed and even dolphins. When we report no debris was seen, we are specifically referring to debris associated with aircraft wreckage.”

Determining that debris comes from the missing flight is just the first step, Gallo said. In addition to leading the team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that found the Air France black box in the Atlantic, he took part in mapping the ocean floor near the current search area. He said any plane debris could have drifted 10 to 100 miles from the ocean floor where the black box sits.

“It depends on the speed and direction of the winds and the currents. Sometimes they operate against each other, sometimes with each other and sometimes at angles to each other,” Gallo said. “It’s a complicated set of issues.”

The underwater terrain there is known as the Southeast Indian Ridge, a portion of a mountain chain known as the Mid-Ocean Ridge.

“It’s a 50,000-mile-long mountain range that wraps around the earth like the seams of a baseball,” Gallo said.

He said the ocean bottom was rolling mountains, more like the Appalachians than the Rockies, with depths from 1.5 to 2.5 miles.

“The bigger obstacle [to the search] is the sea water above it,” he said, recalling days when their research vessel plowed into it, making no more than a mile per hour. “You expect to have horrible days more than anything else, just because the winds there are typically howling and the currents are always very strong.”

The search could be running short on time.

“That stuff eventually is going to sink. It’s not going to float forever,” said Ron Carr, a pilot for 39 years before becoming a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona.

The U.S. Navy dispatched more equipment to Australia this week. If plane debris is found and drift calculations sharply narrow the search area to a few dozen miles, the additional equipment can be put to use.

Additional equipment sent by the Pentagon on Tuesday included a device that can be towed underwater from a boat to listen for a “ping” from the plane’s black box and an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) akin to an unmanned submarine.

The towed ping locator (TPL) is towed on a sled on a long tether that limits the towboat’s speed to less than three knots. The AUV — a Bluefin 21 — can move slightly faster. Three AUVs were used to search a 40-square-mile area of the Atlantic where the Air France airliner went down in 2009. That search took several months.

“Those TPLs on paper are fantastic,” Gallo said. “In practice, if the conditions are right and you have skilled operators, they can be powerful. The ocean can do a lot of things with sound. For instance, if you know how to use thermal layers in the ocean, you can hide a nuclear submarine from some of the most powerful sonar.”

In the Air France search, he said, a ping locator was towed right over the wreck site but didn’t pick up its signal.

While sonar can pick up the signal of metal objects on the ocean floor, the ping sent out by the emergency beacon attached to the black box will fall silent in a matter of days. The battery that powers it has a life of 30 days, so it is expected to die by April 7. Its signal carries for no more than three miles.

In China, home to more than half the passengers on the missing airplane, anger at the Malaysian government continued to swell Wednesday, with celebrities vowing to boycott the Southeast Asian country. Chinese on the Internet also wondered whether passengers from another country, such as the United States, would have been treated better.

An online Sina poll asked Chinese Internet users whether the incident would influence whether they would be likely to travel to Malaysia. Out of more than 58,000 respondents as of Wednesday afternoon, 78 percent said it would, 18 percent said it made no difference and 4 percent said they were not sure.

Halsey reported from Washington. Gu Jinglu in Beijing contributed to this report.

Jia Lynn Yang is a staff writer at The Washington Post who covers policy and business. Before joining the Post, she worked at Fortune magazine.
Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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