PLANES scouring a remote patch of the Indian Ocean were set to resume the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet this morning after heading home empty-handed last night following a 10-hour mission.
Australian officials pledged to continue the search for two large objects spotted by a satellite earlier this week. The sighting raised hopes that the hunt for the Boeing 777 that disappeared on 8 March with 239 people on board was nearing a breakthrough.
But Australia’s acting prime minister, Warren Truss, tempered expectations.
“Something that was floating on the sea that long ago may no longer be floating – it may have slipped to the bottom,” he said. “It’s also certain that any debris or other material would have moved a significant distance over that time, potentially hundreds of kilometers.”
In Kuala Lumpur, where the plane took off for Beijing, Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein thanked the more than two dozen countries involved in the search that stretches from Kazakhstan in Central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean. He said the focus remained on finding Flight MH370 – “a long haul”.
The search area indicated by the satellite images – 1,550 miles south-west of Perth – is a four-hour round-trip flight, leaving planes with only enough fuel to search for about two hours. Five planes, including three P-3 Orions, made the trip yesterday.
While search conditions had improved after Thursday, with much better visibility, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority confirmed there were no sightings of airliner debris.
Searchers relied mostly on trained spotters aboard the planes rather than radar because the latter found nothing in the first day of the specific search on Thursday, officials said.
“Noting that we got no radar detections yesterday, we have re-planned the search to be visual – so, aircraft flying relatively low, very highly skilled and trained observers looking out of the aircraft windows and looking to see objects,” said John Young of the Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division.
Two Chinese aircraft are expected to arrive in Perth today to join the search, and two Japanese aircraft will arrive tomorrow, Mr Truss said.
A small flotilla of ships coming to Australia from China is still several days away. “We are doing all that we can, devoting all the resources we can, and we will not give up until all of the options have been exhausted,” said Mr Truss.
There is a limited battery life of around 30 days for beacons in cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders on board the airliner.The devices work to a depth of 20,000ft, with a signal range of about two nautical miles.
The signals are located using a device operated on the surface of the water or towed to a depth.
Experts say it is impossible to tell if the grainy satellite images of the two objects – one 24 meters (almost 80ft) long and the other 5ms (15ft) – were debris from the plane. But officials have called this the best lead so far in the search for the airliner that vanished over the Gulf of Thailand on a flight to Beijing.
For relatives of the people aboard the plane – 154 of the 227 passengers are Chinese – hope was slipping away, said Nan Jinyan, sister-in-law of passenger Yan Ling. “I’m psychologically prepared for the worst and I know the chances of them coming back alive are extremely small,” said Ms Nan, one of dozens gathered at a Beijing hotel.
Peter Marosszeky, an aviation expert at the University of New South Wales, said the wing could remain buoyant for weeks if the fuel tanks were empty and had not filled with water. Other experts said that if the aircraft breaks into pieces, normally only items such as seats and luggage would remain floating.
Police are considering the possibilities of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board.