Top US search plane finds nothing as storm looms

US Navy bringing in high-tech Black Box detector

Latest update:  Australian authorities said a US Navy P-8 Poseidon, the most advanced search aircraft in the world, had been unable to find objects spotted earlier on Monday by a Chinese aircraft hunting for clues to the missing Malaysia jet in the Indian Ocean.

AFP has tweeted: Indian Ocean search for missing Malaysia jet becomes more urgent as tropical cyclone looms to the north.

A Chinese military aircraft searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner spotted several "suspicious" floating objects on Monday in remote seas off Australia, increasing the likelihood that the wreckage of the plane may soon be found.

The Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft spotted two "relatively big" floating objects and several smaller white ones dispersed over several kilometers, the Xinhua news agency said.

 The United States Navy is moving one of its high-tech Black Box detectors closer to the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane in remote seas off the Australian coast, bolstering hopes wreckage of the plane may be found soon.

Australian authorities said on Monday they are still examining French radar images showing potential floating debris and have not yet shifted the search for a missing Malaysian jetliner in the southern Indian Ocean further north to look for the objects.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said its search area continued to be defined by a US satellite image of two floating objects to frame a search area some 2,500km (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth.

The AMSA is leading the international search along a southern arc for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board.

The US imagery was bolstered by a Chinese satellite image showing potential debris in the same region, centering the search for wreckage of the Boeing 777 jetliner south of the equator.

The French images, however, were taken some 850km (530 miles) north of the current search area.
"We only recently got this information and we are still examining it," an AMSA spokeswoman told Reuters by telephone, declining to say when the authority had received the images.

France satellite images

France on Sunday provided Malaysia with satellite images of objects that could be from a passenger jet that has been missing for more than two weeks, the latest word of such images that officials are hoping will help solve one of the world's great aviation mysteries.

The images show "potential objects in the vicinity of the southern corridor," Malaysia's Ministry of Transport said in a statement. That is thought to be close to areas of the Indian Ocean where previous satellite images released by Australia and China showed objects that could be debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing over the Gulf of Thailand on March 8 with 239 people on board.

A Malaysian official involved in the search mission said the French image was captured Friday and was about 930 kilometers (575 miles) north from where the Chinese and Australian objects were seen.

The official, who declined to be named because he isn't authorized to speak to the media, said one of the objects was estimated to be about the same size as an object captured Tuesday by the Chinese satellite that appeared to be 22 meters (72 feet) by 13 meters (43 feet). However, the official said the French satellite image was fuzzy and very unclear, making it difficult to determine the exact dimensions.

Air and sea searches since Thursday in a remote area of the southern Indian Ocean to determine whether the Chinese and Australian objects were from the missing jet have been unsuccessful. Australian officials told Malaysia there had been no new sightings so far on Sunday, Malaysia's statement said.

The latest images were sent to Australia, which is coordinating the search about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, the statement said. It did not give any further information on the images.

Andrea Hayward-Maher, a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, confirmed that Australia had received the images, but had no further details.

The images could be another clue in the growing mystery over Flight 370. The search has moved from seas off Vietnam when the plane first went missing to areas not far from the Antarctica, where planes and a ship were scrambling Sunday looking for a pallet and other debris spotted by a search plane to determine whether they were from the missing jet.

Wooden pallets are commonly used in shipping, but can also be used in cargo containers carried on planes.

Mike Barton, chief of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's rescue coordination center, told reporters in Canberra, Australia, that the wooden pallet, which was spotted Saturday, was surrounded by several other objects, including what appeared to be strapping belts of different colors.

A New Zealand P3 Orion military plane was then sent to find it but failed, he said.

"So, we've gone back to that area again today to try and re-find it," Barton said. An Australian navy ship was also involved in the search.

AMSA said the aircraft that spotted the pallet was unable to take photos of it.

"We went to some of the expert airlines and the use of wooden pallets is quite common in the industry," Barton said. "They're usually packed into another container, which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft. ... It's a possible lead, but we will need to be very certain that this is a pallet because pallets are used in the shipping industry as well."

Sam Cardwell, a spokesman for AMSA, said the maritime agency had requested a cargo manifest from Malaysia Airlines, but he was unsure whether it had been received as of Sunday night.

Malaysia Airlines asked The Associated Press to submit questions via email for comment on whether Flight 370 had wooden pallets aboard when it disappeared. There was no immediate response.

When Brazilian searchers in 2009 were looking for debris from Air France Flight 447 after it mysteriously plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, the first thing they found was a wooden pallet. The military first reported that the pallet came from the Air France flight, but then said six hours later that the plane had not been carrying any wooden pallets.

Eight search planes departed from a military base near the southwestern Australian city of Perth on Sunday, but like other searches since Thursday, they have not produced any results.

John Young, manager of AMSA's emergency response division, said Sunday's search used mostly human eyes.

"Today is really a visual search again, and visual searches take some time. They can be difficult," he said.

The southern Indian Ocean is thought to be a potential area to find the jet because Malaysian authorities have said pings sent by the Boeing 777-200 for several hours after it disappeared indicated that the plane ended up in one of two huge arcs: a northern corridor stretching from Malaysia to Central Asia, or a southern corridor that stretches toward Antarctica.

Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation for what happened to the jet, but have said the evidence so far suggests it was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.

Authorities are considering the possibilities of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board.

Who is mystery woman who last spoke with captain?

Reports have emerged that authorities are looking for a mystery woman who was the last person to contact Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah before the doomed flight took off. According to reports, investigators are now seeking to identify and touch base with a woman who made a two-minute call to Capt Zaharie Ahmad Shah from a mobile phone obtained under a false identity.

According to Daily Mail investigators are treating it as potentially significant because anyone buying a pay-as-you-go SIM card in Malaysia has to fill out a form giving their identity card or passport number.

In this case, however, while police managed to trace the number to a shop selling SIM cards in Kuala Lumpur, investigations have led to it being discovered that the SIM had been bought ‘very recently’ by someone who gave a woman’s name – but was using a false identity.

“The discovery raises fears of a possible link between Captain Zaharie, 53, and terror groups whose members routinely use untraceable SIM cards. Everyone else who spoke to the pilot on his phone in the hours before the flight took off has already been interviewed,” the daily said.

According to the paper, in a separate development, investigators are now poised to also question Captain Shah’s estranged wife in detail. It is being reported that authorities “waited two weeks out of respect”, but that they will now formally begin interviewing Faizah Khan following pressure from FBI agents assisting the inquiry.

Captain Shah and his wife, although separated, had been living under the same roof and have three children.

Australia hopeful

Australia's prime minister said on Sunday there was "increasing hope" of a breakthrough in the hunt for a missing Malaysian airliner carrying 239 people, after Chinese satellite images showed what could be debris within a search area deep in the southern Indian Ocean.

Scanning the choppy waters of the southern Indian Ocean for a missing Malaysia Airline's flight are expert spotters relying mostly on binoculars and the human eye to locate the jet.

Six aircraft were to fly low over Australia's search zone on Saturday with skilled observers looking out of the windows. Norwegian merchant ship, the St Petersburg, is already at the scene.

"So far, the vessel has not spotted anything unusual in the water," said Olav Sollie from the shipping company that owns the boat, Hoegh Autoliners, adding that fog hindered visibility on Friday.

"I suppose that the biggest chance is probably for an airplane to spot something in the water, when the vessel can be directed to that position and be in position to identify what it actually is."

Sollie said the vehicle-carrier did not have advanced search equipment but that "the most effective (approach) in such operations is actually using your eyes and binoculars".

"The search so far is being done from the deck of the ship itself," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"And that is natural also because the ship is 25 metres (82 feet) high, so from the top deck on the vessel, you have a very good view and a long view."

Chinese satellite

China said on Saturday it had a new satellite image of what could be wreckage from a missing Malaysian airliner, as more planes and ships headed to join an international search operation scouring some of the remotest seas on Earth.

The latest possible lead came as the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 entered its third week, with still no confirmed trace found of the Boeing 777 or the 239 people on board.

The new potential sighting was dramatically announced by Malaysia's acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, after he was handed a note with details during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, scooping the official announcement from China.

"Chinese ships have been dispatched to the area," Hishammuddin told reporters.

China said the object was 22 metres long (74ft) and 13 metres (43ft) wide, and spotted around 120 km (75 miles) "south by west" of potential debris reported by Australia off its west coast in the forbidding waters of the southern Indian Ocean.

The image was captured by the high-definition Earth observation satellite "Gaofen-1" early on March 18, two days after the Australian satellite picture was taken, China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) said on its website.
There was no official comment on whether the two images could show the same object.

Flight MH370 vanished from civilian radar screens early on March 8, less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on a scheduled flight to Beijing.

Investigators believe someone on board shut off the plane's communications systems, and partial military radar tracking showed it turning west and re-crossing the Malay Peninsula, apparently under the control of a skilled pilot.

That has led them to focus on hijacking or sabotage, but they have not ruled out technical problems.

Remote seas

Since Australia announced the first image of what could be parts of the aircraft on Thursday, the international search for the plane has focused on an expanse of ocean more than 2,000 km (1,200 miles) southwest of Perth.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said one of its aircraft reported sighting a number of "small objects" with the naked eye, including a wooden pallet, within a radius of five km.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion aircraft took a closer look but only reported seeing clumps of seaweed. It dropped a marker buoy to track the movement.

"A merchant ship in the area has been tasked to relocate and seek to identify the material," AMSA said in a statement.
The search area experienced good weather conditions on Saturday with visibility of around 10 kilometres and moderate seas.

Australia, which is coordinating the rescue, has cautioned the objects in the satellite image might be a lost shipping container or other debris, and may have sunk since the picture was taken.

"Even though this is not a definite lead, it is probably more solid than any other lead around the world and that is why so much effort and interest is being put into this search," Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told reporters, before latest Chinese image was reported.

China said its icebreaker "Snow Dragon" was heading for the area, but was still around 70 hours away. Japan and India were also sending more planes and Australian and Chinese navy vessels were steaming towards the southern search zone.

But the area is known for rough seas and strong currents, and Malaysia's Hishammuddin said a cyclone warning had been declared for Christmas Island, far off to the north.

"There are vessels heading in that direction. They may have to go through the cyclone," he said.

"Generally, conditions in the southern corridor are very challenging," said Hishammuddin. "The ocean varies between 1,150 metres and 7,000 metres in depth."

NO SIGN IN NORTHERN CORRIDOR

Where the missing plane went after it flew out of range of Malaysia's military radar off the country's northwest coast has been one of the most puzzling aspects of what has quickly become perhaps the biggest mystery in modern aviation history.

Electronic "pings" detected by a commercial satellite suggested it flew for another six hours or so, but could do no better than place its final signal on one of two vast arcs: a northern corridor from Laos to the Caspian Sea, and a southern one stretching from Indonesia down to the part of the Indian Ocean that has become the focal point of the search.

Malaysia has said the search will continue in both corridors until confirmed debris is found.

Hishammuddin said that, in response to a formal diplomatic request from Malaysia, China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Laos, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan had all said, based on preliminary analysis, that there have been no sightings of the aircraft on their radar.

Aircraft and ships have renewed the search in the Andaman Sea between India and Thailand, going over areas in the northern corridor that have already been exhaustively swept.

The Pentagon said it was considering a request from Malaysia for sonar equipment. The P-8 and P-3 spy planes, which the United States is already deploying in the search, also carry "sonobuoys" that are dropped into the sea and use sonar signals to search the waters below.

The search itself has strained ties between China and Malaysia, with Beijing repeatedly leaning on the Southeast Asian nation to step up its hunt and do a better job at looking after the relatives of the Chinese passengers.

For families of the passengers, the process has proved to be an emotionally wrenching battle to elicit information.

In a statement on Saturday, relatives in Beijing lambasted a Malaysian delegation for "concealing the truth" and "making fools" out of the families after they said they left a meeting without answering all their questions.

"This kind of conduct neglects the lives of all the passengers, shows contempt for all their families, and even more, tramples on the dignity of Chinese people and the Chinese government," they said.

Some experts have argued that the reluctance to share sensitive radar data and capabilities in a region fraught with suspicion amid China's military rise and territorial disputes may have hampered the search. 

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