Plane crew spots possible debris in new MH370 search zone

Five of the reconnaissance aircraft scouring the southern Indian Ocean today for wreckage of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 found objects that could be debris from the plane.

The objects were sighted in the new search zone established today. A ship now needs to be sent to try and recover and identify them and currents need to be mapped in case the objects drift.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said it had photographic images of the objects, which will be assessed overnight.

The crew of a New Zealand P-3 Orion reported spotting a number of objects that were light in colour and a fishing buoy.

Crew on one Australian air force plane relocated these objects and said it had also seen two blue/grey rectangular objects. Another crew spotted other objects in a separate part of the search area.

There have been some sightings by search teams in the past, but none of those objects have been located after the initial sighting.

Today, the area being searched for wreckage shifted 1,100 kilometres northeast of the sectors being searched in recent days. Ten aircraft were out scouring the seas in one of the world’s remotest areas.

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The decision to refocus the search is based on new analysis of satellite data and radar signals picked up between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.

The analysis suggests that MH370 was travelling faster than previously thought so would have used more fuel than investigators estimated earlier. It would therefore not have travelled as far south over the Indian Ocean as was believed.

All this, however, is still analysis of data. Despite satellite imagery from five countries and a few visual sightings of possible debris, no wreckage from the plane has yet been found.

And now the search focus has shifted again, which must be a further shock for relatives and friends of those on board.

There is still no explanation as to how and why MH370 would have ended up so far from its charted course, or why it wasn’t spotted by other radar if it did fly on for about six hours after Malaysian military radar last detected it at 2.15 a.m. on March 8, the day it disappeared.

Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammudin Hussein, said today: “Because of ocean drift, this new search area could still be consistent with the potential objects identified by various satellite images over the past week. This work is ongoing, and we can expect further refinements.”

New search area is outside the Roaring Forties

The new search zone is still huge. It covers about 319,000 square kilometres and is about 1,850 kilometres west of Perth.

It is closer to western Australia than the area being searched in recent days so reconnaissance planes now have two or three hours extra search time as they don’t have to travel so far from their base in Perth.

Also, the search will now be north of the Roaring Forties, so weather should be more favourable.

Having examined the latest information provided by the investigating team in Malaysia, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said this was the most credible lead as to where debris from the plane may be located.

The expression “most credible lead” has been used many times recently and the phrase must now be echoing in the ears of those waiting for concrete evidence.

Monday’s announcement by Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, that flight MH370 had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean and that there were no survivors was based on analysis of satellite pings between the plane and the UK company Inmarsat.

Many of the relatives say this is not enough; they want physical proof before they will believe that their loved-ones are gone.

Over the past three weeks they have seen the search shift from the South China Sea to the west of the Malaysian peninsula and now to the deep and daunting waters of the southern Indian Ocean.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau says the new potential flight path may be refined even further as the investigating team continues its analysis.

Information needs to be continually adjusted for the length of time that has elapsed since the aircraft went missing and the likely drift of any wreckage floating on the ocean surface.

The Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation (AGO) has re-tasked satellites to capture images of the new search area.

Working group refined data

Mr Hishammudin said today that, in order to narrow the search area, an international working group had refined data from the satellite company Inmarsat and analysed it again along with radar data and aircraft performance assumptions.

Information that had already been looked at was re-examined in light of new evidence drawn from the Inmarsat data analysis, Mr Hishammudin said, and new technical data emerged about aircraft performance.

The international working group includes representatives from Inmarsat, Britain’s Air Accident Investigation Bureau, Rolls Royce, Boeing, The Civil Aviation Administration of China and its Aircraft Accident Investigation Department, and the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration from the United States.

Thai military radar

There was criticism of Thailand when it released important radar data ten days after MH370 disappeared.

It announced on March 18 that it had picked up signals from an unidentified aircraft minutes after MH370 last transmitted its location.

Thai air force officials said the plane wasn’t in Thai airspace and hadn’t been considered a threat. The information emerged during checks of radar logs nine days after MH370 went missing.

According to the Thai military, an unknown aircraft was detected at 1:28 a.m. Malaysian time, just after MH370 vanished from civilian radar.

The unidentified plane was spotted in the South China Sea moving southwest back towards Kuala Lumpur and the Strait of Malacca.

The Thai military said the signal was sporadic, but radar picked the plane up again as it swung north and disappeared over the Andaman Sea.

All this fits in with the radar signals from an unidentified plane that were picked up by the Malaysian military.

The Malaysian radar data was treated very cautiously at first as there was no proof that the plane was MH370, but the authorities have since said it was the missing plane and that it did turn around and head west after its Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System and transponder were turned off.

There have been six satellite leads in the search for wreckage and the most recent ones were from Thailand and Japan.

Thailand’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency said yesterday that it spotted between 200 and 300 objects on Monday.

The objects range from two to 15 metres in size and were scattered over an area measuring about 420 square kilometres, about 2,700 kilometres southwest of Perth on Australia’s west coast.

The new sighting followed two from France and earlier sightings from China and Australia, all in roughly the same area.

On March 23, 122 potential objects were spotted by Airbus Defence and Space, based in France.

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A Japanese satellite has also captured images of 10 potential objects.

The search for debris is a race against the clock as aircraft black box flight recorders usually have a 30-day battery life.

The US has provided high-tech resources, including a Bluefin-21, which is an autonomous underwater vehicle that can dive to about 4,500 metres and uses side-scan sonar to build up an accurate picture of the sea floor.

It has also provided a pinger locator – a torpedo-shaped device that is towed behind a ship. The device, which is now in Perth, has sophisticated acoustic equipment that can pick up the signals from a black box at up to 6,000 metres.

The pinger locator has to be fitted onto the Australian ship Ocean Shield, which is expected to arrive in the search area on April 5.

Even if the black boxes are found, only the final two hours of the cockpit conversations will be available. This means there will be no evidence of what was said in the cockpit at the time the plane disappeared. There would, however, be full flight data information.

Today, the Malaysian authorities declined to comment on questions about whether MH370 stayed at a cruising altitude after it changed course. They say technical information can be clarified later and the urgent task is to locate the debris identified by satellites and verify whether it is from flight MH370.

All they would say today about the ongoing criminal investigation was that the perspective is international.

Full Australian Maritime Safety Authority update for March 28

Five aircraft spotted multiple objects of various colours during Friday’s search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

Search activities have now concluded. A total of 256,000 square kilometres was searched.

Photographic imagery of the objects was captured and will be assessed overnight.

The objects cannot be verified or discounted as being from MH370 until they are relocated and recovered by ships.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P-3 Orion reported sighting a number of objects white or light in colour and a fishing buoy.

A Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion relocated the objects detected by the RNZAF Orion and reported it had seen two blue/grey rectangular objects floating in the ocean.

A second RAAF P-3 Orion spotted various objects of various colours in a separate part of the search area about 546 kilometres away.

A total of ten planes were tasked by AMSA in today’s search and all have now departed the search area.

AMSA has tasked Chinese Maritime Administration patrol ship, Haixun 01, which is in the search area and will be in a position to relocate the objects on Saturday.

Friday’s search area was shifted north after international air crash investigators in Malaysia provided the latest credible lead available to AMSA.

This was on the advice of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB).
Weather conditions in the area are expected to be reasonable for searching on Saturday.