MH370: Malaysia Airlines plane search halts overnight

Richard Westcott reports on the trail of the missing plane MH370: ''The agonising wait for the relatives goes on''

An international air search in the Indian Ocean for possible debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane has ended for the day, officials have said.

Australia, New Zealand and the US said bad weather had hampered their efforts in the area 2,500km (1,550 miles) south-west of Perth.

Four planes were trying to check whether two objects seen on satellite images were debris from flight MH370.

The Kuala Lumpur-Beijing plane with 239 people on board disappeared on 8 March.

Analysis

It is an "utterly baffling mystery", according to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, as the hunt for flight MH370 continues in the icy waters of the southern Indian Ocean.

Merchant navy ships are converging on the area south-west of Perth, along with military vessels and aircraft, scouring the seas for what could be vital clues.

Academics say the relatively large size of the unidentified objects spotted by satellite - about 24m in length - suggests that if the fragments are part of the missing jet, the aircraft was largely intact when it hit the water.

Oceanographers here in Western Australia believe that if the debris is from the Malaysia airlines flight it probably crashed about 300-400km to the west due to prevailing currents. The search stretches across 7.7 million sq km - an area larger than the entire landmass of Australia.

It first lost contact with air traffic controllers and then disappeared from radar.

Satellite information released

Meanwhile, a British satellite firm has told the BBC there were very strong indications 10 days ago that the 777 Boeing would be found either in the southern part of the Indian Ocean or in Central Asia - and not in the South China Sea or the Malacca Straits where Malaysia had continued to search.

London-based Inmarsat said its engineers realised at an early stage that the aircraft had probably flown for several hours on a northern or southern track, and it was very unlikely that the plane could have headed north over countries with sophisticated air defence systems.

The company further said that it had informed the Malaysian authorities of the information, through an intermediary company, on 12 March, but this was not publicly acknowledged until 15 March.

Furthermore, the authorities continued to search in the South China Sea and Malacca Straits during that time, despite the information suggesting that the plane had flown on much further.

Footage shows an Australian Air Force P-3 Orion over the new search area

The BBC's Andrew Moore says the Malaysian authorities have already come in for criticism from the relatives' families and that these revelations may fuel that anger.

'Extremely bad'

A statement by Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Amsa) said the four planes had searched the vast area without success.

"The search will continue on Friday," it said.

Two Australian Orion aircraft searching the area on Thursday were joined later by aircraft from the US and New Zealand.

Amsa said the aircraft had covered an area of 23,000 sq km (14,000 square miles).

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.

Amsa image Australian authorities said one of the objects was 24m in size
Amsa image The objects were seen on satellite images and assessed by experts
The St Petersburg, a Norwegian merchant ship, that is helping with search efforts The St Petersburg, a Norwegian merchant ship, was the first vessel to reach the area

David Wright, an ABC News reporter who was on the P-8 Poseidon, said all the sophisticated plane had spotted was "a freighter and two pods of dolphins".

A Norwegian merchant ship, the St Petersburg, has also arrived in the area after responding to a shipping broadcast issued by Australia's rescue co-ordination centre.

It will be joined by an Australian naval vessel, HMAS Success and a British coastal survey ship, HMS Echo.

'Best lead'

Earlier on Thursday, Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein described the possible sighting of debris on satellite images taken on 16 March as a "credible lead".

The largest object appeared to be 24m (78ft) in size, the Australian authorities said.

A number of sightings of possible debris have been investigated since the plane went missing but so far none have proved to be linked.

Map showing search area for MH370
A Royal Australian Air Force pilot of an AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft scans the surface of the sea near the west of Peninsula Malaysia in this handout picture by the Royal Australian Air Force on 17 March 2014 Australia was asked by Malaysia earlier this week to lead the southern part of the search
A diagram showing the search area for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean is seen during a briefing by John Young, general manager of the emergency response division of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), in Canberra on 20 March 2014 Amsa said ships and planes were heading south-west of Perth to try to find the objects

The objects identified in the images were of a "reasonable size", Amsa's general manager John Young said.

"This is a lead, it is probably the best lead we have right now. But we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them, to know whether it's really meaningful or not."

He warned the objects spotted in the sea could turn out to be unrelated to MH370, possibly items such as containers that had fallen from ships.

"On this particular occasion the size and the fact that there are multiple [objects] located in the same area really makes it worth looking at," Mr Young added.

Michael Daniel, a former US Federal Aviation Administration official, told Singapore's Straits Times: "If they have a strong feeling or indication that the debris belongs to the aircraft, one of the first things authorities will do is drop sonar buoys in the water.

"If the black box (flight recorder) is there, the buoys should be able to pick up the signals. This could take up to 48 hours but it all depends on how near or far the ships and other assets are."

Satellite signal

Investigators had identified two corridors of territory - one to the north and one to the south - spanning the possible positions of the plane about seven hours after take-off.

This was based on its last faint signal to a satellite - an hourly "handshake" broadcast even when the main communication systems are switched off.

Malaysia says search efforts are continuing in both corridors, involving a total of 18 ships, 29 aircraft and six ship-borne helicopters.

Meanwhile, relatives of those on board are still waiting for concrete news.

Bimal Sharma, a merchant navy captain whose sister Chandrika was on the plane, told the BBC he had experienced "hope and then despair and then hope and then despair".

"I have been very hopeful because it was intentionally diverted, so I don't believed it was crashed," he said. "It's been a very, very difficult time, and very emotionally stressing.

"The area where Australia is looking - I was a captain at sea - I have been through that area several times. This area has got a concentration of garbage - plastics and wood. I don't know, I don't want to believe it as yet."

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