An international force of surveillance planes and ships has converged in a remote spot in the Indian Ocean to investigate what Australian satellite experts say are ‘‘credible’’ images of pieces of the missing MH370 plane.
Nearly two weeks after the Malaysian Airlines flight disappeared, Australian authorities were describing as their ‘‘best lead’’ the grainy satellite images of two objects about 2500 kilometres southwest of Perth.
But senior sources were urging caution late on Thursday night, as the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is co-ordinating the search, said the first Australian plane on the scene had failed to find anything.
One source familiar with the operation said there was unlikely to be definitive news until the Navy supply ship the HMAS Success reached the scene and could take a close-up look, which meant at least 48 hours.
Four aircraft were sent on Thursday to search the area, with an Australian P-3 Orion aircraft arriving mid-afternoon and a cutting-edge United States P-8 Poseidon due to arrive shortly after that. The US broadcaster ABC, which had a reporter on board the P-8 Poseidon, reported that the plane also had returned home without finding anything.
Another Australian Orion as well as an Orion from the Royal New Zealand Air Force were due to arrive later on Thursday.
The New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion would take four hours to reach the search area, arriving about 10.20pm NZ time. It would leave the search area at about 1am and land at 5am.
AMSA tweeted late on Thursday: ‘‘RAAF P3 crew unable to locate debris. Cloud & rain limited visbility. Further aircraft to continue search’’.
The deployment of the HMAS Success from Fremantle underscored the seriousness with which the authorities are taking the satellite breakthrough.
Another source close to the operation stressed there were still many ‘‘vagaries’’ about the situation and said there was not yet enough evidence to have a ‘‘high level of confidence’’.
But he added: ‘‘It’s certainly the show in town and it’s going to focus all of our efforts.’’
AMSA’s emergency response manager John Young said two objects, one measuring roughly 24 metres in length, had been found on images taken by a commercial satellite.
Those images had been analysed by Defence’s satellite experts from the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation, which deemed them ‘‘credible sightings’’, he said.
Young said poor weather was likely to hamper the search, which was set to continue until about midnight Sydney/Melbourne time and continue at first light.
Former Qantas pilot Trevor Jensen told the ABC that the larger object could be a wing or a part of the tail. Fuel is kept in the wings and, if it had run out, the wing would likely float, he said.
Each wing of a Boeing 777 is about 27 metres long, though the satellite image provided by AMSA suggests an object that is broader than a plane’s wing.
Young also urged caution, saying: ‘‘I must emphasise that these objects may be very difficult to locate and they may not be related to the search.’’
The images are understood to have been taken on Sunday, raising questions about why it took four days for authorities to act on the find. The debris in the pictures may have drifted dozens of kilometers since the images were taken.
The Australian government has said they came from a commercial satellite.
A merchant ship was also due to reach the area about 6pm on Thursday, possibly providing a close-up of the objects, though the HMAS Success is likely to have a better chance of hauling any large objects out of the sea.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott broke the news of the find in Parliament on Thursday, saying he had informed his Malaysian counterpart, Prime Minister Najib Razak, and promised to keep him updated.
Young said Australian authorities were also retasking satellites to collect more images of the area, but could not give a time as to when more images would be available.
Experts have warned that even if the wreckage is found, the strong currents in the southern Indian Ocean mean that the black box could still be hard to find.
Young said he understood the ocean to be ‘‘several thousand metres’’ deep in that area.
The black box will be critical to solving the mystery of what happened on the plane. If the objects prove to be wreckage from the MH370, it means the plane likely flew until it ran out of fuel.
Aviation expert Peter Marosszeky from UNSW said he believed the crash was a combination of foul play and an electrical fault.
"It looks there was foul play and whoever was the in cockpit couldn't get the plane to work the way they wanted it to," he said.
Marosszeky said when communication was lost, all electronic signals and lights on board would have been disabled.
Senior Indonesian minister Djoko Suyanto said it was ‘‘too early to conclude that the debris belongs to the MH370 plane’’.
‘‘In the early days of the search, there was also a satellite image of the South China sea, but it turned out not to be from that plane, so we have to be careful,’’ he told Indonesian TV. ‘‘We cannot conclude that it’s MH370 until after we carefully examine the site.’’
New Zealand's Air Vice Marshal Kevin Short said the three search planes would be staggered two to three hours apart to search a relatively small area.
"I'm hoping, along with the search authorities, that the first aircraft on task will find them. New Zealand is the third of the three going on task."
He said there would not be any more aircraft leaving New Zealand to join the search.
WAIT TAKES TOLL ON KIWI'S FAMILY
Flight MH370 went missing on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board, including two New Zealanders, Perth-based Paul Weeks, and Ximin Wang from Auckland.
Weeks' sister, Sara, said she and her Christchurch-based family members were closely monitoring the news.
However, they were not jumping to any conclusions following the Perth press conference.
The family had been taking all of the reports about the aircraft's plight seriously, however contradictory or speculative, but "we're not going to get too excited until they confirm anything".
Sara Weeks said it was "sensible" of the Australian authorities to take a cautious approach.
"Until they can tell us something concrete we'll just continue to
plod along like we have been. You can't say something is confirmed - that it's part of the plane - until you know," she said.
"It gets your heart racing... I will tell you that, but it could just be nothing. We don't know and neither do they.
"I guess if there is some confirmed news and we find out that it is the plane then, yes... it will give us something to grieve over, because we don't have that yet."
Sara Weeks said the past 12 days, and not knowing the plane's fate, had taken its toll on the family.
But the outpouring of support from around New Zealand, including from strangers, had been overwhelming.
"It's a horrible situation. It just is. Everything is still up in the air. It's always on your mind."
NZ WILL 'WITHOUT DOUBT' SUPPORT AUSTRALIA - KEY
Speaking from Shanghai, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said the information was not substantial yet, but Abbott would not have made the comments in Parliament if he wasn't fairly certain.
"I think for the New Zealand families involved it'll be a time of both real distress and in a sense an acknowledgement of what they've been fearing the most that their loved ones are no longer alive, if that's the case."
New Zealand would "without doubt" provide assistance if asked.
"If the Australians need any support whatsoever we'll be the first on hand to support them."