Rush to find potential debris from Malaysian jet
Ships rushed to the location of floating objects spotted Monday by Australian and Chinese planes in the southern Indian Ocean close to where multiple satellites have detected possible remains of the lost Malaysian airliner.
One ship was carrying equipment to detect the plane's vital black box, but it remained uncertain whether the vessels were reaching the end of the search or another frustrating dead end.
''They could be flotsam,'' Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in Canberra. ''Nevertheless we are hopeful that we can recover these objects soon and that they will take us a step closer to resolving this tragic mystery.''
In one of two new sightings Monday, Abbott said the crew on board an Australian P3 Orion had located two objects in the search zone - the first grey or green and circular, the second orange and rectangular. The crew was able to photograph the objects, but it was unclear if they were part of an aircraft.
An Australian navy supply ship, the HMAS Success, was heading to the area to get a closer look, and Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the vessel could reach them Monday night or by Tuesday morning.
GLIMMER OF HOPE
Separately, the crew aboard one of two Chinese IL-76 aircraft combing the search zone observed two large objects and several smaller ones spread across several square kilometres, Xinhua News Agency reported. At least one of the items - a white, square object - was captured on a camera aboard the plane, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
''We are still racing against time,'' Hong said at a ministry briefing. ''As long as there is a glimmer of hope, our search efforts will carry on.''
China has redirected the icebreaker Snow Dragon toward the latest find, and that ship was due to arrive early Tuesday. Six other Chinese ships have been directed toward the search zone, about 2,500 kilometres southwest of Perth, along with 20 fishing vessels that have been asked to help, Hong said.
Relatives of passengers aboard the missing Boeing 777-200 were closely following news reports of the latest sightings, desperate for any word on the fate of loved ones.
''We're eager to learn more about this,'' said Wang Zhen who is staying at a hotel near Beijing. His father and mother, Wang Linshi and Xiong Yunming, were both aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 as part of a group of Chinese artists touring Malaysia.
Satellite images and data released by Australia, China and France in recent days have identified possible debris in the area that may be linked to the disappearance of the plane on March 8 with 239 people on board - two-thirds of them Chinese.
The ocean depth in the search area ranges between 1,150 metres and 7,000 metres, and the U.S. Pacific command said it was sending a black box locator in case a debris field is located.
The Towed Pinger Locator, which is pulled behind a vessel at slow speeds, has highly sensitive listening capability so that if the wreck site is located, it can hear the black box ''pinger'' down to a depth of about 6,100 meters, Cmdr. Chris Budde, a U.S. Seventh Fleet operations officer, said in a statement.
''This movement is simply a prudent effort to pre-position equipment and trained personnel closer to the search area so that if debris is found we will be able to respond as quickly as possible since the battery life of the black box's pinger is limited,'' Budde said.
An Australian navy support vessel, the Ocean Shield, was also moving into the search zone and would arrive in three or four days, a defence official said. The ship is equipped with acoustic detection equipment that can search for the missing plane's black box.
There was no sign the move was linked to any breakthrough in the mystery of the plane, but rather as a preparation.
''The time for the battery life (of the 'pinger') is potentially only a month,'' said Jason Middleton, aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. ''If debris was found, it would be terrible not have anything on site and waste time'' getting a ping detector to the region. ''I think they're planning ahead and getting it ready.''
The search was given added momentum when a French satellite detected potential debris on Sunday, after Australia and China earlier released satellite images identifying suspect objects.
Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss said the French radar data located the objects about 850 kilometres north of the current search area, and that ''we need to check that out as well.''
Australian authorities had sent planes and a ship to try to locate a wooden pallet that was spotted on Saturday from a search plane, but the spotters were unable to take photos of it.
Wooden pallets are most commonly used by ships but are also used in airplane cargo holds. Hishammuddin, the Malaysian defense minister, confirmed Monday the flight was in fact carrying wooden pallets. But he said there was not yet any evidence that the pallets found by the Australians were related to the missing plane.
EXPLANATION STILL LACKING
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 someone else on board.
Malaysia's police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar, reiterated at a news conference Monday that all the passengers had been cleared of suspicion.
But he said that the pilots and crew were still being investigated. He would not comment on whether investigators had recovered the files that were deleted a month earlier from the home flight simulator of the chief pilot.
The ill-fated flight MH370 was the co-pilot's first time flying that type of plane without an observer, the airline said.
Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid had flown a Boeing 777-200ER on five occasions before the March 8 flight bound for Beijing, and had passed the strict training programme requirements on those trips with no problems, Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.
"[Fariq] was actually new to the type, he actually moved from a lower fleet to 777.
"The first five flights, the co-pilot normally flies with a check co-pilot and [March 8] was his 6th flight, he had passed his first five flights and we do not see any problem with him," Jauhari told a media briefing in Kuala Lumpur today.
Fariq was accompanied on his sixth flight by pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who was a qualified examiner and had 18,365 hours flight experience, Jauhari said.
Fariq had 2,673 hours flight experience.
Two recent incidents with Malaysia Airlines planes were also addressed by Jauhari.
The pilot of the Kathmandu flight had followed standard operating procedures after colliding with a flock of birds upon landing on March 21, he said. The plane was carrying 180 passengers, and no injuries were reported.
On Monday, flight MH066 bound for Seoul's Incheon airport was diverted to Hong Kong merely as a precautionary measure, he said.
"As far as the flight to Incheon last night was concerned, we had a technical problem with the generator and as a precaution we diverted the aircraft to Hong Kong.
"It is not a safety issue per se but a technical issue with the aircraft," he said.
- Fairfax, AP