PERTH — Three weeks after the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 off the radar, searchers scoured a new area of the Indian Ocean for the doomed jet Saturday hoping to salvage possible debris after several hopeful sightings.
Late Saturday morning, a Malaysian minister involved in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 said no debris spotted in the area has been recovered, adding he hoped for some news soon.
The first plane back from the search Saturday, a Chinese Ilyushin IL-76, spotted three floating objects, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said, a day after several planes and ships combing the newly targeted area closer to mainland Australia saw several other objects, including two rectangular items that were blue and gray.
Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters near Kuala Lumpur after meeting several families of passengers on the plane that there was no new information on the objects, which could just be regular debris, or could be from the missing plane.
“I’ve got to wait to get the reports on whether they have retrieved those objects. … Those will give us some indication,” said Hishammuddin, who was accompanied by his wife and children as he visited the relatives at a hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia.
Despite having access to considerable assets, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the search teams faced a formidable task given the distances involved.
“We should not underestimate the difficulty of this work, it is an extraordinarily remote location,” he told reporters Saturday.
“We are trying to find small bits of wreckage in a vast ocean. While we’re throwing everything we have at it, the task goes on.”
Planes attached to the multinational operation spotted “multiple objects” floating in the water on Friday after the focus of the search moved to a new zone on the strength of fresh data indicating the plane was flying faster than first thought before it disappeared on March 8.
However, authorities stressed that the items sighted could not be verified as coming from MH370 until they were physically examined and ships from China and Australia have been tasked with finding them.
“The objects cannot be verified or discounted as being from MH370 until they are relocated and recovered by ships,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said in a statement. “It is not known how much flotsam, such as from fishing activities, is ordinarily there. At least one distinctive fishing object has been identified.”
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said a cold front would bring rain, low clouds and reduced visibility over the southern part of the search area, with moderate winds and swells of up to 2 meters. Conditions will improve Sunday, although rain, drizzle and low clouds are still likely.
AMSA said a Chinese ship, the Haixun 01, began attempting to relocate the objects at first light Saturday.
It was joined by a navy vessel Jinggangshan, which carries two helicopters, China’s official state news agency Xinhua said.
AMSA expects six ships to be in place by the end of the day, including the Australian navy’s HMAS Success and a total of five Chinese vessels as they comb an area of roughly the size of Norway.
The authority said weather conditions on Saturday were good, although they could deteriorate later in the day.
AMSA has 11 military aircraft from six countries — Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States — at its disposal for the search, which is taking place far off Western Australia and about 1,100 kilometers northeast of where initial efforts were focused.
Yet the objects they are trying to find are tiny, with New Zealand Air Vice-Marshal Kevin Short saying the items spotted from a New Zealand Orion Friday were mostly rectangular and ranging in size from just 50-100 centimeters.
The search sector “was shifted north after international air crash investigators in Malaysia updated their previous analysis of the likely aircraft movement,” AMSA said.
The new area was identified following an examination of radar data by experts from Boeing who have joined an international investigation team in Kuala Lumpur.
It suggested the aircraft was travelling faster than previously thought, meaning the Boeing 777 used more fuel and would have crashed into the Indian Ocean sooner.
The analysts calculated MH370’s estimated speed during the time it was briefly tracked by Malaysian military radar shortly after it diverted to the west — the last time MH370 appeared on radar.
It switched the search’s focus to an area around 1,850 kilometers west of Perth, prompting Australia to re-position its satellites to look for clues.
The new zone is closer to land, meaning planes can spend more time searching before having to return to refuel, and enjoys better weather than seas further south where the search had been concentrated.
As the search moves to the new area, the clock is ticking on the tracking signal emitted by the plane’s “black box” of flight data, which lasts about 30 days.
The US Pacific Fleet has moved specialized black box locator equipment to Perth and Abbott said it would be deployed on an Australia navy ship once an approximate crash site is established.
“It’s critical to continue searching for debris so we can reverse-forecast the wind, current and sea state since March 8 to recreate the position where MH370 possibly went into the water,” said Commander Tom Moneymaker, US 7th Fleet oceanographer.
Malaysia continues to believe the plane was deliberately redirected by someone on board and flown thousands of miles southwards, but nothing else is known.
More than two-thirds of the 239 people on board MH370 were Chinese and anguished families are desperately awaiting solid evidence that might unlock one of aviation’s greatest riddles.
Until then, many have refused to accept the Malaysian government’s conclusion that the plane went down at sea.
Underscoring simmering tensions, on Friday in Beijing hundreds of Chinese family members walked out of a briefing by Malaysian officials, who were left to stare at ranks of empty chairs while a relatives’ representative berated them.
Malaysia also came under fire from Interpol, which rejected Kuala Lumpur’s claims that consulting a stolen passport database — which may have detected two people using false passports on the flight — would have caused excessive delays.
While Kuala Lumpur’s handling of the plane’s mysterious disappearance has been criticized by some families, Abbott said international protocols meant Malaysia would remain in charge of the operation.
“The prime responsibility rests with Malaysia (but) Australia is ready to shoulder as much of the responsibility as countries wish us to take,” he said.
Flight 370 disappeared March 8 while bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The hunt focused first on the Gulf of Thailand, along the plane’s planned path. But when radar data showed it had veered sharply west, the search moved to the Andaman Sea, off the western coast of Malaysia, before pivoting to the southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia.
That change was based on analysis of satellite data. But officials said a reexamination and refinement of that analysis indicated the aircraft was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel use and reducing the possible distance it could have flown before going down. Just as a car loses gas efficiency when driving at high speeds, a plane will get less out of a tank of fuel when it flies faster.
Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said personnel at Boeing Co. in Seattle had helped with the analysis.
“This is our best estimate of the area in which the aircraft is likely to have crashed into the ocean,” Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said at a news conference in Canberra.
He said a wide range of scenarios went into the calculation.
“We’re looking at the data from the so-called pinging of the satellite, the polling of the satellites, and that gives a distance from a satellite to the aircraft to within a reasonable approximation,” he said. He said that information was coupled with various projections of aircraft performance and the plane’s distance from the satellites at given times.
In Beijing, some relatives of the 153 Chinese passengers on the plane said the shift in the search area added to their confusion and frustration.
“What on earth is the Malaysian government doing?” said Wang Chunjiang, whose brother was a passenger. “Is there anything more that they are hiding from us?”
Meanwhile Saturday, investigators continued puzzling over what might have happened aboard the plane that lead to its disappearance. A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak amid an ongoing investigation, said the FBI’s searches of computer hard drives belonging to pilot and co-pilot, including a flight simulator with deleted files, have yielded “no significant information” about what happened to the plane or what role, if any, the crew might have played in its disappearance.