Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ships Head to New Search Area for Missing Malaysia Airlines Plane: Some Objects Have Been Retrieved From the Ocean, but None Have Been Confirmed as Flight 370 Debris

The Wall Street Journal
By Robb M. Stewart And Shani Raja
Updated March 29, 2014 8:55 a.m. ET

PERTH, Australia—A fleet of ships is steaming toward an area of the Indian Ocean newly identified as the likeliest place where missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may be found.

Three ships arrived in the search zone Saturday and six more were due to descend on Sunday, said Australia's maritime safety agency, which is leading the multinational operation. That would bring the total number of vessels scouring the region to nine, with more scheduled to arrive.

"We have many more ships involved than we had previously," said a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, or AMSA, in an interview. "The job of locating the objects will still mainly be the role of the aircraft, while the vessels will be tasked with attempting to recover and identify those objects."

The contingent of ships was being beefed up just as aerial photographs of several floating objects analyzed overnight failed to determine whether they belonged to the Malaysian airline, which disappeared from civilian radar about three weeks ago with 239 people on board.

A Chinese air force Ilyushin IL-76 reported sighting three objects in the search area on Saturday and an Australian P3 Orion spotted numerous objects in a different part of the search area, the maritime agency said in a statement summing up the day's efforts. Haixun 01, a vessel from China's maritime safety administration, and the Australian navy's HMAS Success managed to retrieve a number of objects from the ocean, but so far none have been confirmed as coming from the Malaysian aircraft, the agency said.

The search is set to resume again early Sunday.

The AMSA spokesman said ships, several of which carry helicopters, remained in the best position to identify whether the objects spotted Friday by aircraft were debris from flight MH370.

"In principle, it's possible that if a large enough object with clear markings was sighted and photographed it could be recognized," he said. But he added that "the most likely method of verification remains a close-up analysis by a ship."

Haixun 01 has been at the site identified by the aircraft—far off Australia's western coast in the newly identified search area—since first light.

Earlier, eight aircraft flew to the zone from Perth, including planes from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China.

Smoke flares are sometimes dropped by aircraft to help ships zoom in on objects that are located, but they tend to last only about 45 minutes.

Objects sighted earlier this week, where Australia's HMAS Success was merely 30 miles away, failed to yield a recovery because the flare extinguished before the ship could get there, said Royal Australian Air Force Warrant Officer Brenton Bell.

Spotters also sometimes tag debris on digital maps using hand-held triggers the moment it's seen. However, objects can drift quickly and are hard to relocate even an hour or two later.

The ideal scenario is that a nearby ship arrives quickly with a helicopter to scan the area, warrant officer Bell said.

The weather was favorable for much of Saturday's operation, but AMSA had warned that worsening conditions may be on the way. Rough weather and poor visibility have forced searchers to suspend operations a number of times.

Friday's search area was hundreds of miles north of where fleets of planes and ships had previously been looking. The zone was shifted after international air-crash investigators in Malaysia updated their analysis of the missing jetliner's likely movements after it vanished from radar screens on March 8.

Five aircraft had spotted objects in the new area on Friday, but none have so far been verified as belonging to MH370. Australia's maritime agency said it wasn't clear how much flotsam is ordinarily in this area of the ocean, and that at least one of the objects spotted appeared to be fishing debris.

The search has also become a race to detect signals from the missing Boeing 777-200's black-box flight recorder before the batteries in its underwater locator beacon wear out.

Authorities calculate that they have no more than eight days before expiration is expected. That could mark a turning point in the search effort, they say, which would become immensely more difficult.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said a black-box locator—able to detect pings from the flight recorder at great depths—was ready to be deployed if needed.

Sent to Perth by the U.S. Navy, the device would be towed behind an Australian navy ship, which itself would take days to reach the search area. ADV Ocean Shield, which will be fitted with the equipment, was due to arrive in Perth on Saturday, according to ship-tracking sites.

"We're trying to find small bits of wreckage in a vast ocean," Mr. Abbott told reporters Saturday. "The task goes on."

The new area is more hospitable than the previous one. Aircrews no longer have to battle the "Roaring 40s," an area of strong winds and high seas lying between latitudes 40 and 50 degrees south. Better weather would mean fewer stoppages—aircrews were grounded by gale winds twice already this week.

The area is also closer to the Australian mainland, extending the time planes can spend in the search area before having to return to base to refuel.

Still, the decision to dramatically revise the search zone also means aircraft are now scouring a vast new search area without the aid of markers laid down by search crews to monitor ocean currents and the movement of possible debris.

The new area is roughly four times the size of what was being searched a day earlier. Investigators aren't saying for sure that this will be the final search zone. Officials from both Australia and Malaysia said the data may be analyzed again, prompting them to look elsewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

Aircraft that spotted the objects Friday dropped a GPS drift marker that broadcasts its location to a satellite so naval personnel can track its drift on the ocean surface, and help model the likely movement of debris in the water.

The ships arriving in area will be sent to the GPS position and guided toward any debris by aircraft overhead, New Zealand Air Vice Marshall Kevin Short said in an interview Saturday. He said a New Zealand aircrew had spied 11 objects, one of which was orange and looked like a fishing buoy.

Vice Marshall Short said most of the debris was about one meter in length and white, and that one item was blue and slightly larger. "We can't tell you what these objects are, and that's why we need the ships to pick them up," he said.

—Rebecca Howard in Wellington and Daniel Stacey in Perth contributed to this article.