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Australians say Latest Objects Need to be Checked

Updated: 03/28/2014 8:43 PM
Created: 03/27/2014 8:54 PM KSTP.com
By: Jennie Olson

Objects spotted floating in a new search area for debris from the missing Malaysian jetliner need to be recovered and inspected before they can be linked to the plane, Australian officials said Saturday.
    
Eight planes were ready to comb the newly targeted area off the west coast of Australia after several objects were spotted Friday, including two rectangular items that were blue and gray, and  ships on the scene will attempt to recover them, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.
    
"The objects cannot be verified or discounted as being from MH370 until they are relocated and recovered by ships," the authority 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."
    
It said the weather was expected to be good for at least the first part of the day, but could deteriorate later Saturday.
    
Newly analyzed satellite data shifted the search zone on Friday, raising hopes searchers may be closer to getting physical evidence that Flight 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean on March 8 with 239 people aboard.
    
The newly targeted zone is nearly 1,130 kilometers (700 miles) northeast of sites the searchers have crisscrossed for the past week. The redeployment came after analysts determined that the jet may have been traveling faster than earlier estimates and would therefore have run out of fuel sooner, officials said.
    
During the earlier search, hundreds of objects have been seen in the water by satellites, but so far not a single one has been confirmed as being from the missing Boeing 777.
    
The Australian statement said five P-3 Orions - three from Australia and one each from Japan and New Zealand - plus a Japanese coast guard jet, a Chinese Ilyushin IL-76, and one civilian jet acting as a communications relay will take part in the air search Saturday.
    
The shift to the new zone could be a break for searchers because it is a shorter flight from land and has much calmer weather than the remote stretch previously targeted.
    
"It is a different ballpark," said Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at New South Wales University. "Where they are searching now is more like a subtropical ocean. It is not nearly as bad as the southern Indian Ocean, which should make the search easier."
    
But in Malaysia, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein cautioned that while the conditions had improved, they remained challenging and the area "although more focused than before, remains considerable."
    
The new search area is about 80 percent smaller than the old one, but still spans about 123,000 square miles (319,000 square kilometers), roughly the size of Poland. In most places, depths range from about 6,560 feet (2,000 meters) to 13,120 feet (4,000 meters), although the much deeper Diamantina trench edges the search area.
    
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?"
    
Investigators continued puzzling over what might have happened aboard the plane. A U.S. 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.
    
If investigators can determine the plane went down in the newly targeted zone, recovery of its flight data and cockpit voice recorders could be complicated.
    
"There are a number of ridges, escarpments and fracture zones that run through this area, so it's a fairly complex area," said Rochelle Wigley, director of the Indian Ocean Mapping Project at the University of New Hampshire. Wigley said determining the ocean floor topography within the search zone depends on its exact coordinates. While investigators appear to be focusing on an area where much of the sea floor is about 6,600 feet (2,000 meters) below the surface, depths may reach a maximum of about 19,700 feet (6,000 meters) at its easternmost edge, she said.
    
The U.S. Navy is sending equipment that can detect pings from the recorders, or "black boxes," up to about 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) deep, and an unmanned underwater vehicle that operates at depths up to 14,800 feet (4,500 meters).
    
Joseph Kolly, director of research and engineering at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said the flight data recorders have to be able withstand depths of up to 20,000 feet.
    
The new search zone's location 700 kilometers (435 miles) closer to the Australian mainland makes it easier to reach. Planes used so much fuel getting to and from the previous zone that they were limited to only about two hours of search time.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
 

Ahmad Nizar Zolfakar, Director of Air Traffic Management Sector, Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, standing, briefs relatives of Chinese passengers onboard the Malaysia Airlines plane, MH370 at a hotel in Beijing, China, Friday.
Photo: AP/Ng Han Guan
Ground crew unload a Sea Hawk helicopter from a Royal Australia Air Force C-17 after it landed at RAAF Base Pearce to help with the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, on Friday.
Photo: AP/Rob Griffith
Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion is guided by a ground crew man on the tarmac at RAAF Base Pearce following their search operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Thursday, March 27, 2014.
Photo: AP/Rob Griffith

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