Plane search has a window of mild weather in ‘pretty rough part of the world’

Authorities are investigating two objects spotted by satellite floating in the southern Indian Ocean that officials say could be debris from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. (Reuters)

Malaysia asked the United States to supply undersea surveillance equipment Friday to search for a missing Malaysia Airlines jet, as trained spotters aboard low-flying planes scoured the remote and inhospitable seas of the southern Indian Ocean in a race against time to find debris or survivors.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein asked for the additional U.S. equipment in a telephone conversation with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The Pentagon did not say whether it would grant Hishammuddin’s request, but a spokesman said the United States was committed to funding its share of the search for several more weeks.

“As of now, we’ve set aside
$4 million to aid in the search,” said Army Col. Steve Warren. “Based on our current expenditures, we expect these funds will last until sometime in the beginning of April.”

If evidence of the missing plane is not found by then, there is doubt that it ever will be located. If it crashed into the ocean west of Australia, as officials believe, any debris floating on the surface a month after its March 8 disappearance could be hundreds of miles from where the plane went down.

“The last report I have is that nothing of particular significance has been identified in the search today, but the work will continue,” said Warren Truss, Australia’s acting prime minister while Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits Papua New Guinea.

New data has provided an arc of possible locations for Malaysian Flight MH370.

Grainy satellite images captured Sunday and published by Australia on Thursday showed two large objects bobbing in the ocean about 1,500 miles southwest of Perth. Officials called these images the most credible lead yet in the investigation. But there is no guarantee that the objects, around 80 and 15 feet long, have not sunk by now.

“Something that was floating on the sea that long ago may no longer be floating,” Truss said in Perth, according to the Reuters news agency. “It may have slipped to the bottom.”

After being stymied by low fog and drizzle Thursday, searchers in aircraft and ships welcomed a calmer seas and much better visibility Friday. The prediction for Saturday was for the wind to drop to about 7 mph and the waves to decline in size to about eight feet, but the forecast for next week turns sour again.

Already an international effort, the search drew additional resources Friday. China, which had 150 citizens among the 239 people aboard the Beijing-bound flight, said that two of its aircraft would arrive in Australia on Saturday and that several Chinese ships were steaming toward the region. Japan said two of its planes would arrive Sunday.

Three Australian P-3 Orion surveillance planes and a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon were joined Friday by a long-range corporate jet with trained spotters at the windows, said John Young of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).

The hunt for the missing airliner has focused on one of the most desolate corners of the planet, an area of ocean known as the Roaring Forties because its location near 40 degrees south latitude is frequently swept by huge swells and buffeted by strong winds.

“It’s about the most inaccessible spot that you could imagine on the face of the Earth,” Abbott told reporters in Papua New Guinea. “But if there is anything down there, we will find it.”

The search is complicated because debris could have moved more than 100 nautical miles in strong ocean currents and unpredictable eddies since the satellite images were taken. It could even have sunk to the ocean floor at least 10,000 feet below the surface.

Time is critical, not just to find anyone who might have survived, but also because if the Boeing 777 did indeed crash in that area, its flight recorder will transmit a locating signal for only about two more weeks before its 30-day battery runs out.

A newly disclosed transcript of the conversation between the cockpit crew and air-traffic controllers — from the time the plane rolled onto the runway in Kuala Lumpur until the co-pilot’s final “good night” more than 42 minutes later — revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

The cockpit crew called or responded to controllers 14 times in that period, according to the transcript obtained by the Daily Telegraph of London. The crew initially contacted the control tower, then communicated with a radar facility serving the capital city and finally talked with a radar center that handles planes at cruising altitude.

A flight simulator removed from the home of the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, has been sent to the FBI’s technology division in Quantico, Va., where the bureau’s computer experts will examine it, an FBI official in Washington said Friday.

A radar survey of the search area Thursday did not yield any results. On Friday, authorities carried out a visual search for the debris spotted by the satellite using “low-flying aircraft and very highly trained and skilled observers looking out the aircraft windows,” Young said. That type of search requires more planes flying closer together, he said.

“Although the search area is much smaller than we started with, it nonetheless is a big area when you are looking out the window and trying to see something by eye, so we may have to do this a few times to be confident of our coverage of the search area,” Young said in a video released by AMSA. “We want to find these objects because they are the best lead to where we might find people to be rescued.”

The extreme conditions mean that even if the debris is confirmed to be part of the missing Flight MH370, the search could be entering a more difficult stage that could require years and tens of millions of dollars.

When winter weather sets in around May in the Southern Hemisphere, the seas will become significantly more inhospitable in the search area. Complex calculations bolstered by measurements of ocean currents would be required to track the path of the debris and estimate where the plane might have crashed, said David Gallo, who helped lead the search for Air France Flight 447 in 2009 and is director of special projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Every piece of debris moves in a different way, adding another layer of complexity and uncertainty, he said.

“Some might stand higher in the water, like a sailboat that will be moved around by the wind,” Gallo said. “Others may be like icebergs, more underwater, and moved more by the currents. So they don’t all end up in the same place. They scatter.”

Matthew England of the Climate Change Center at the University of New South Wales in Sydney warned that this area of the Indian Ocean has rapid and complex currents above an ocean floor marked by “plenty of ridges and canyons.”

“It’s an eddy-rich region,” he said. “Which means that superimposed on the long-term average current are these little eddies that spawn off the current and have a life of their own. They pinch off a bit of water and might move counter to the main flow.”

Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia in Crawley, said his modeling of ocean currents suggested that the debris could have drifted from an area roughly 300 miles to the west between the March 8 disappearance and Thursday, when the airborne search began in the southern Indian Ocean.

Halsey reported from Washington. Ernesto Londoño and Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this article.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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