Flight MH370 a needle in an immense haystack

20:41, Mar 10 2014
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Journalists attempt to interview a woman who is the relative of a passenger on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, as she crouches on the floor crying, at the Beijing Capital International Airport.
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A relative of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries, surrounded by journalists, at the Beijing Capital International Airport on March 8, 2014.
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The Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew lost contact with air traffic controllers early on Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the airline said in a statement.
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An aerial view of an oil spill is seen from a Vietnamese Air Force aircraft in the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, 250 km from Vietnam and 190 km from Malaysia, in this handout photo from Thanh Nien Newpaper taken on March 8.
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A spokesman (centre) of Malaysia Airlines is surrounded by journalists as he gives a briefing about Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at a hotel in Beijing March 8, 2014.
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A relative (front) of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as she walks past journalists at a hotel in Beijing March 9, 2014. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER aircraft carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew was presumed to have crashed off the Vietnamese coast on Saturday.
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Malaysia Airlines Commercial Director Hugh Dunleavy (centre) speaks to journalists about information of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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Vietnamese Air Force officers sit in the cockpit of a search and rescue aircraft as they fly over the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
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Volunteer rescue workers and religious organisations pray during multi-religion mass prayers for the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang.
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A view of oil slicks (pale line near the bottom right) spotted in an area of the South China Sea about 100 nautical miles (185 km) from Tok Bali Beach in Malaysia's Kelantan state.
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Admiral Datuk Mohd Amdan Kurish, Director General of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, looks at a radar screen while searching for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane in the South China Sea.
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A relative (left) of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is escorted by a caregiver from Malaysia Airlines as they walk in a corridor at a hotel in Beijing.
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Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik applies the final touches to a sand art sculpture he created wishing for the well being of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, on a beach in Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
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Life vests and lifesavers are seen onboard a Vietnam Air Force search and rescue aircraft on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Tho Chu island.
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Journalists place their recorders as they get ready for the first briefing of the day at a news conference at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on March 10.
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Relatives of a passenger onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cry inside a hotel they are staying, in Putrajaya. China has urged Malaysia to step up the search for the jetliner that went missing with 239 people on board, about two-thirds of them Chinese, and said it has sent security agents to help with an investigation into the misuse of passports.
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An officer looks out of a helicopter during a mission to find the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, near Tho Chu Island.
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A map of a flight plan is seen on a computer screen during a meeting before a mission to find the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, at Phu Quoc Airport.
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A woman stands in front of a giant screen showing the number hours since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing, in Beijing on March 10.
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A family member of a passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 waits for news at Lido Hotel on March 10, in Beijing, China. Investigative teams continue to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the 293 passengers that were travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
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Dato' Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation briefs the media over latest updates on missing Malaysia Airline MH370 on March 10, in Kuala Lumpur.
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Clouds hover outside the window of a Vietnam Air Force search and rescue aircraft An-26 on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Vietnam's Tho Chu island.
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People believed to be relatives of passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 are escorted to the VIP section of the Beijing Capital International Airport prior to flying to Kuala Lumpur.
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A Chinese relative of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines MH370 is comforted by a staff member of the airport as she shields her face from journalists at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
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A combination photo shows two men whom police said were travelling on stolen passports onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane.
Military personnel look out of a Singapore Air Force plane during the search
Military personnel look out of a Singapore Air Force plane during the search.
General Khalid Abu Bakar
Malaysia's police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar, addresses a news conference.
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Students from an international school in east China city Zhuji pray for the passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Family members of missing passengers leave a meeting in a Beijing Hotel.
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MESSAGE OF HOPE: A Vietnamese tourist writes a message of hope for missing passengers and crew.
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MESSAGES FOR THE MISSING: Tying a message of hope on a message board for passengers and crew.
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A relative of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 answers media questions at Lido Hotel.
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A charity worker comforts an emotional relative of a passenger.
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Indian sand artist Sudarshan Pattnaik works on a sand sculpture of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at golden beach at Puri in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
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Satellite images reveal a possible crash site for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, where three large objects were seen in the water.
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An object sits in the water in satellite imagery released by China.
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The zone where the mystery objects were found.
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What appears to be fuel sits on the water in the area where three large objects were found.
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A crew member from the Royal Malaysian Air Force looks through the window of a Malaysian Air Force CN235 aircraft during a Search and Rescue operation to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Kidd and USS Pinckney are seen en transit in the Pacific Ocean in this US Navy picture taken May 18, 2011. Kidd and Pinkney have been searching for the missing Malaysian airliner and are being re-deployed to the Strait of Malacca off Malaysia's west coast as new search areas are opened in the Indian Ocean.
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Students watch as a group of artists put the finishing touches to a three dimensional artwork at a school in Makati city, metro Manila. According to the artists, the artwork is their way of expressing sympathy towards the relatives of passengers onboard the missing Boeing 777-200ER.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows two maps with corridors of the last known possible location of the missing plane.
Selamat Omar shows a picture of his son, flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat
Selamat Omar shows a picture of his son, flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat who was onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers who were travelling onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 watch a television displaying a Malaysian press conference at Lido Hotel in Beijing.
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A family member of a passenger onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as he watches a message board dedicated to passengers.
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Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
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Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
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A still image taken from video shows an image of an object spotted in the southern Indian Ocean by the Gaofen-1 high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite of CNSA.
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Pilot Dave Smith (R) gives a pre-flight briefing aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft before taking off to search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, at RAAF base Pearce near Perth, March 22, 2014.
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Family members of passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 raise their fists as they shout "return our families" to protest against the lack of new information after a routine briefing given by Malaysia's government and military representatives at Lido Hotel in Beijing March 22, 2014.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds up a note that he has just received on a new lead in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, during a news conference at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 22, 2014.
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Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (bottom C) takes part in a special prayer for passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin mosque in Putrajaya March 21, 2014.
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A woman writes on a banner of well wishes for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 14, 2014.
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A family member of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 covers her face as she cries after a routine briefing given by Malaysia Airlines at Lido Hotel in Beijing, March 22, 2014.
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A girl reads some of the messages of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur March 22, 2014.
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A crew member aboard a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion uses binoculars as it flies over the southern Indian Ocean during the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 March 22, 2014.
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A woman writes another message of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur March 22, 2014.
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Map of the southern Indian Ocean locating site where a satellite may have found debris related to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; includes satellite images of possible debris. MCT
Search for MH370
Solid matter is pictured floating in the southern Indian Ocean seen from a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
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INDIAN OCEAN - This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the planned search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 24, 2014.
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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.
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A satellite photo, showing the locations and co-ordinates of unknown objects reported by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) in the Indian Ocean. The images were taken on March 23 and released on March 26.
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A satellite photo, showing the location of unknown objects reported by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) in the Indian Ocean. The images were taken on March 23 and released on March 26.

In an age when people assume that any bit of information is just a click away, the thought that a jetliner could simply disappear over the ocean for more than two days is staggering. But Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is hardly the first reminder of how big the seas are, and of how agonising it can be to try to find something lost in them.

It took two years to find the main wreckage of an Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Closer to the area between Malaysia and Vietnam where Saturday's flight vanished, it took a week for debris from an Indonesian jet to be spotted in 2007. Today, the mostly intact fuselage still sits on the bottom of the ocean.

"The world is a big place," said Michael Smart, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Queensland in Australia. "If it happens to come down in the middle of the ocean and it's not near a shipping lane or something, who knows how long it could take them to find?"

Amid the confusion, officials involved in the search say the Malaysian jet may have made a U-turn, adding one more level of uncertainty to the effort to find it. They even suggest that the plane could be hundreds of kilometres from where it was last detected.

Aviation experts say the plane will be found - eventually. Since the start of the jet age in 1958, only a handful of jets have gone missing and not been found.

"I'm absolutely confident that we will find this airplane," Captain John M Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, said on Monday (local time). The modern pace of communications, where GPS features in our cars and smartphones tell us our location at any given moment, has set unreal expectations. "This is not the first time we have had to wait a few days to find the wreckage."

Based on what he's heard, Cox believes it's increasingly clear that the plane somehow veered from its normal flight path. He said that after the plane disappeared from radar, it must have been "intact and flew for some period of time. Beyond that, it's all speculation". If it had exploded midair along its normal flight path, "we would have found it by now".

Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, whose agency is leading a multinational effort to find the Boeing 777, said more than 1000 people and at least 34 planes and 40 ships were searching a radius of 100 nautical miles (185km) around the last known location of Flight MH370. No signal has been detected since early Saturday morning, when the plane was at its cruising altitude and showed no sign of trouble.

Azharuddin said the search includes northern parts of the Malacca Strait, on the opposite side of the Malay Peninsula and far west of the plane's last known location. Azharuddin would not explain why crews were searching there, saying: "There are some things that I can tell you and some things that I can't."

Some aviation experts are already calling for airlines to update their cockpit technology to provide a constant stream of data - via satellites - back to the ground. Information about key system operations is already recorded on the flight data and voice recorders - the so-called black boxes - but as this crash shows is not immediately available. Such satellite uplinks would be costly and the benefit is debated.

Just about every major jet to disappear in the modern era has eventually been found. The rare exceptions didn't involve passengers.

In September 1990, a Boeing 727 owned by Faucett Airlines of Peru was ditched into the North Atlantic after running out of fuel on its way to Miami. The accident was attributed to poor pilot planning and the wreck was never recovered.

More mysterious was the disappearance of another 727 in Africa. It was being used to transport diesel fuel to diamond mines. The owners had numerous financial problems and one day, just before sunset, the plane took off without clearance and with its transponder turned off. It is believed to have crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. One theory, never proven, is that it was stolen so the owner could collect insurance.

"I can't think of a water crash in the jet age that hasn't been solved ," said Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co.

The Malaysia Airlines jet had been headed from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The 239 people aboard were mostly from China. In Beijing, passengers' relatives have complained that the airline has not been forthcoming with information, and that they've had to rely on news reports.

Some of those reports, however, have led to dead ends. Those false alarms appeared to leave searchers with little to go on.

The flight "was very high up in the air early in the morning, when it was still dark", Azharuddin said. "We have no witnesses on the ground and nobody on the plane can be contacted. The area is over the sea, so it's not as easy as that. There are a lot of constraints."

Whether the plane broke up in midair or crashed into the water, there would be some debris.

If the plane broke up "for some aerodynamic reason, like the wing fell off or there was a depressurisation, there'd be big chunks of wing and fuselage all over the place. So it'd be very unlikely that it would just be destroyed and turned to dust", said Smart, the aerospace engineering professor.

He added that much of the wreckage may be at the bottom of the sea, which is 50 to 60 metres deep in the area where the plane was last detected.

The size of the debris field will be one of the first indicators of what happened, aviation experts say. A large, widespread field would signal the plane likely broke apart at a high elevation, perhaps because of a bomb or a massive airframe failure. A smaller field would indicate the plane probably fell intact, breaking up upon impact with the water.

Discovering the debris can take days.

A week after an Adam Air flight carrying 102 people vanished over Indonesian waters on January  1, 2007, an Indonesian navy ship detected metal on the ocean floor. But it would take another two weeks for the US Navy to pick up signals from the flight data and cockpit recorders, and seven months for the boxes to be recovered. The fuselage remains on the ocean floor, and Adam Air is now defunct.

The Malaysian Airlines jet could be less of a challenge than the Adam Air crash in one respect: It was last tracked over much shallower water.

But for now, the mystery is overwhelming.

"It's hard to imagine what could have caused it with these modern planes," Smart said.

Click here for a larger image.

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AP