New analysis shifts search for missing Malaysian jetliner nearly 700 miles

Observers on five aircraft Friday spotted multiple objects floating in a new section of the southern Indian Ocean, where the massive search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight has shifted.

A New Zealand plane saw a number of objects described as “white or light.” An Australian aircraft located the items seen by the New Zealand plane and saw two blue-gray rectangular objects. Yet another plane saw more objects in another area more than 300 miles away.

These sightings mark the first time the Australian-led search has seen promising items in the water that it can try to dredge up and examine more closely, beginning Saturday. Eight planes continued the search Saturday, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), and six ships are expected to arrive late in the day to begin the work of relocating the items seen overhead.

The hope is that unlike the innumerable leads that have led the historic hunt from the South China Sea and Kyrgyzstan to the far-south corner of the Indian Ocean, this debris will be the break that the search team is seeking.

The search for missing Flight MH370 shifted to another section of the southern Indian Ocean on Friday after new analysis by investigators indicated that the aircraft was traveling faster than previously thought — and therefore ran out of fuel much sooner.

The new search area is 680 miles northeast of where planes and ships have been scouring the waters for signs of the vanished Boeing 777. It is also four times as large — 198,200 square miles, compared with the 48,500-square-mile patch of ocean where the search had been focused, according to AMSA.

After a week when the search for the aircraft seemed to be making progress, with satellite images showing hundreds of objects floating in the water, the sudden shift of the search area to the northeast Friday essentially put the massive effort back at square one, experts said.

“We are starting on a blank page,” said Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia who studies this corner of the Indian Ocean. “We are in exactly the same situation we were in one week ago.”

AMSA said photos were taken and would be assessed overnight. The team will likely send out ships Saturday to investigate further and try to confirm whether the debris is related to the missing plane.

The redirection of the search comes as a result of analysis of radar data collected as the plane traveled between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, before contact was lost, AMSA said. The data show that the aircraft traveled faster than investigators thought, burned its fuel more quickly, and therefore traveled a shorter distance, according to the Australians.

Authorities said they believe the new search area includes the spot where the flight ended its mysterious March 8 journey. The plane, carrying 239 passengers and crew members, was supposed to fly north from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing but abruptly turned sharply westward an hour into the journey, then headed south with its various communications systems all offline, a sequence of events that investigators are trying to unravel.

Friday’s development suggests that the phase of the search that began March 18 in the southern Indian Ocean — and seemed to be steadily homing in on a smaller portion of it — has been on the wrong track for more than a week.

What happened to Flight MH370?

The new area, though, is much closer to Perth, which will give planes more time to search, Australian officials said. And it moves the operation away from the turbulent part of the ocean known as the “Roaring Forties” to a region where Pattiaratchi said winds and currents are much calmer.

It is not clear how authorities are regarding the other objects spotted by satellites in recent days, floating in an area far to the southwest of the refocused search.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the objects seen in those satellite images are still potentially pieces of the missing plane or its cargo since ocean drift and the unpredictable currents in that part of the ocean could account for their location.

But Pattiaratchi, the currents expert, said there is “absolutely no chance” the objects picked up in satellite images drifted so far southwest from the area now being searched.The new section being searched and the old one, he said, are in completely different systems of currents, and it’s unlikely for objects to move from one to another. If they did, he said, it would take several years.

Australian officials said the new lead was based on continued analysis of information pieced together from radar and satellite data during the course of the investigation.

Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said Friday that the decision to shift the search farther north came from a closer analysis of the existing data, rather than from new information.

The ships and planes looking for the missing passenger jet immediately changed their routes Friday to reflect the new analysis.

The search team is racing to identify a likely crash site so that the operation can focus next on finding the all-important black box containing cockpit audio and flight data. U.S. Navy equipment that can listen for “pings” from the black box has arrived in Perth, according to Australian officials. An Australian navy support vessel that can tow the pinger locator underwater is supposed to arrive within days. The black box will emit signals for 30 days, meaning there is a little more than a week left to find it before it goes silent. The depth of the water in the new area is between 1.2 miles and 2.5 miles, Australian officials said.

Australian authorities on Friday described trying to piece together a puzzle using different sources of data: from radar, satellites and what manufacturers know about the plane’s performance, among other factors.

“There are a range of scenarios that had to be fed in, and that’s one of the reasons why the search area remains a very large one,” Dolan said. “And this is something that we probably should underline. . . . This is still an attempt to search a very large area and for surface debris, which will give us an indication of where the main aircraft wreckage is likely to be. This has a long way to go.”

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.
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