Radar echoes, new imagery in search for plane

Last updated 08:13 24/03/2014

As more planes depart from Australia to search for a missing passenger jet, French satellite images could show possible plane debris, Malaysia says.

MH370
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds satellite images as he speaks about the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 26.
Perth
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The crew of one of two Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft used in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 walk away from their plane in Perth.
The MH370 story in pictures
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The saga begins on March 8, when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 departs Kuala Lumpur at 12:41am, local time. On board are 227 passengers and 12 crew.

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France has provided new satellite data showing possible debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, as searchers combing a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean tried without success to locate a pallet that could be a key clue in solving one of the world's biggest aviation mysteries.

Flight 370 went missing over the Gulf of Thailand on March 8 with 239 people aboard en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, setting off a multinational search effort that has turned up nothing conclusive so far on what happened to the jet.

The new information, given to Malaysia's government and forwarded to searchers in Australia, shows "potential objects" in the same part of the ocean where satellite images previously released by Australia and China showed objects that could be debris from the plane, Malaysia's Ministry of Transport said in a statement without providing further details.

Police have also reportedly seized the personal financial records of all 12 crew members of the flight - including bank statements, mortgage documents and credit card bills.

Detectives also got hold of the mobile and landline phone records of the crew, along with details of their computer use and online habits, British newspaper The Sunday Times reported.

Investigators are treating as potentially significant a two-minute call shortly before take-off to the captain of the missing plane from a mystery woman using a mobile phone number obtained under a false identity.

It was one of the last calls made to or from the mobile of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah in the hours before his Boeing 777 left Kuala Lumpur, the Mail Online reported.

Anyone buying a pay-as-you-go SIM card in Malaysia has to fill out a form giving their identity card or passport number.

In this case, police traced the number to a shop selling SIM cards in Kuala Lumpur. 

They found that it had been bought "very recently" by someone who gave a woman's name - but was using a false identity.

There has been speculation that Zaharie, 53, was linked to anti-government protest groups in Malaysia.

Everyone else who spoke to the pilot on his phone in the hours before the flight took off has already been interviewed.

Sunday's search was frustrating because "there was cloud down to the surface and at times we were completely enclosed by cloud", Royal Australian Air Force flight Lieutenant Russell Adams told reporters at the military base where the planes take off and land on their missions.

Nothing of interest to searchers was found, he said, adding that the search is worth it because "we might do 10 sorties and find nothing, but on that 11th flight when you find something and you know that you're actually contributing to some answers for somebody."

Details on the French data were not immediately released. The statement from Malaysia called the information "new satellite images", while a statement from France's Foreign Ministry said "radar echoes taken by a satellite" had located floating debris but made no mention of imagery.

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The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is leading the search in waters off Australia, declined to offer details about the information from France. The authority did not respond to multiple requests by The Associated Press for access to the data.

"Any satellite images or other new information that comes to AMSA is being considered in developing the search plans," AMSA said.

But a Malaysian official involved in the search mission said the French data consisted of radar echoes captured on Friday and converted into fuzzy images that located objects about 930 kilometres north of the spots where the objects in the images released by Australia and China were located.

One of the objects located was estimated to be about the same size as an object captured on Tuesday by the Chinese satellite that appeared to be 22m by 13m, said the official, who declined to be identified because he isn't authorised to speak to the media. It was not possible to determine precise dimensions from the French data, the official said.

Information about the new data emerged as authorities coordinating the search, which is being conducted about 2500km southwest of Perth, sent planes and a ship to try to "re-find" a wooden pallet that appeared to be surrounded by straps of varying lengths and colours. It was spotted on Saturday by spotters in a search plane, but no images were captured of it and a New Zealand air force Orion dispatched to locate the pallet could not find it.

"So, we've gone back to that area again today to try and re-find it," said Mike Barton, chief of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's rescue co-ordination centre. An Australian navy ship was also involved in the search.

Royal New Zealand Air Force Air Commodore Mike Yardley said there had been no sightings of interest. The only thing the crew saw was seaweed. A picture of something floating in the southern Indian Ocean, as seen from the New Zealand Orion was released.

The sighting of a wooden pallet raised hopes. While they were  commonly used in shipping, they could also be used in cargo containers carried on planes.

AMSA said the aircraft that spotted the pallet was unable to take photos of it.

"We went to some of the expert airlines and the use of wooden pallets is quite common in the industry," Barton said. "They're usually packed into another container, which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft. ... It's a possible lead, but we will need to be very certain that this is a pallet because pallets are used in the shipping industry as well."

Sam Cardwell, a spokesman for AMSA, said the maritime agency had requested a cargo manifest from Malaysia Airlines, but he was unsure whether it had been received as of Sunday night.

Malaysia Airlines asked The Associated Press to submit questions via email for comment on whether flight MH370 had wooden pallets aboard when it disappeared, but did not immediately respond to the email.

An official with Malaysia Airlines said on Sunday night that the flight was carrying wooden pallets but provided no further details, including the number of pallets.

When Brazilian searchers in 2009 were looking for debris from Air France Flight 447 after it mysteriously plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, they first found a wooden pallet. The military initially reported that the pallet came from the Air France flight, but backtracked hours later and said the plane had not been carrying any wooden pallets.

The southern Indian Ocean is thought to be a potential area to find the jet because Malaysian authorities have said pings sent by the Boeing 777-200 for several hours after it disappeared indicated that the plane ended up in one of two huge arcs: a northern corridor stretching from Malaysia to Central Asia, or a southern corridor that stretches toward Antarctica.

Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation for what happened to the jet, but have said the evidence so far suggests it was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.

Authorities are considering the possibilities of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board.

- AP, Fairfax NZ

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