Royal Australian Air Force crew members walk down a ladder from an AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft after they arrived in Perth yesterday searching an area in the southern Indian Ocean for the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
KUALA LUMPUR: Aircraft and ships ploughed through dire weather yesterday in search of objects floating in remote seas off Australia that Malaysia’s government called a “credible lead” in the trans-continental hunt for a jetliner missing for nearly two weeks.
The large objects, which Australian officials said were spotted by satellite four days ago in one of the remotest parts of the globe, are the most promising find in days as searchers scour a vast area for the plane lost with 239 people on board.
A Norwegian merchant ship arrived in the area yesterday, but officials cautioned it could take days to confirm if the objects were parts of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777. Malaysia’s government said the search would continue elsewhere despite the sighting in the southern Indian Ocean.
The area where the objects were spotted is around 2,500km southwest of Perth, roughly corresponding to the far end of a southern track that investigators calculated the aircraft could have taken after it was diverted.
“Yesterday I said that we wanted to reduce the area of the search. We now have a credible lead,” Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
A search for the plane that began in the tropical waters off Malaysia’s east coast has now switched to the vast, icy southern oceans between Australia, southern Africa and Antarctica.
Two Royal Australia Air Force AP-3C Orions, a US Navy P-8 Poseidon and a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion were involved in yesterday’s search which was called off late in the evening and will resume today.
Hishammuddin said the information on the objects received from Australia had been “corroborated to a certain extent” by other satellites, making it more credible than previous leads.
The larger of the objects measured up to 24 metres, long and appeared to be floating in water several thousand metres deep, Australian officials said. The second object was about five metres long. Arrows on the images pointed to two indistinct objects apparently bobbing in the water.
“It’s credible enough to divert the research to this area on the basis it provides a promising lead to what might be wreckage from the debris field,” Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore John McGarry told a news conference in Canberra.
The satellite images, provided by US company DigitalGlobe, were taken on March 16, meaning that the possible debris could by now have drifted far from the original site. Australian officials said an aircraft had dropped a series of marker buoys in the area, which will provide information about currents to assist in calculating the latest location.
The captain of the first Australian air force AP-3C Orion plane to return from the search area described the weather conditions as “extremely bad” with rough seas and high winds.
A Norwegian car carrier diverted from its journey from Madagascar to Melbourne and had arrived in the search area, the ship’s owner said. A Royal Australian Navy ship equipped to recover any objects was also en route. China’s icebreaker for Antarctic research, Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, will set off from Perth to search the area, Chinese state news agency Xinhua cited maritime authorities as saying. About two-thirds of the 227 passengers on Flight MH370 were Chinese nationals.
The dimensions of the objects given are consistent with at least one of them possibly being the major part of a 777-200ER wing, which is around 27 metres long, though Australian officials cautioned the first images were indistinct. The relatively large size of the objects would suggest that, if they do come from the missing aircraft, it was largely intact when it went into the water.
If the plane had run out of fuel, it would not necessarily have plummeted but its behaviour would have depended on whether there was someone in control and their intentions, pilots said.