Search for Missing Malaysian Airliner Turns Up No New Debris Sightings

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A growing number of airplanes scoured the southern Indian Ocean on Sunday as the 16-day search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continued, but the end result was frustratingly the same — nothing.

Images and maps releasesd to the media on day 6 of Flight MH370 search. ESMA Handout (Credit: Australia Maritime Safety Authority)

Buoyed by a third set of satellite data that indicated possible debris from the plane in the water, the international team led by Australia fought bad weather early in the day as it looked for signs of the missing Boeing 777 and the 239 people who were aboard.

Eight aircraft and one ship conducted Sunday’s search and there were no sightings of significance, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a written statement.

Four more jets — two from China and two from Japan — are set to join the reconnaissance team on Monday, the organization said.

Earlier, French authorities passed on satellite data showing “potential objects in the vicinity of the southern corridor” of the search area for the plane, Malaysia’s acting transportation minister said.

“Malaysia immediately relayed these images to the Australian rescue coordination center,” Hishammuddin Hussein said.

Satellite images previously issued by Australian and Chinese authorities have also pointed to possible large floating objects, stoking hopes searchers may find debris from the missing plane.

Sunday’s search was a visual search, AMSA rescue spokesman Mike Barton told reporters. Eyes took precedence over radar. Four of the planes were civil aircraft, each with five volunteers from Australia who scanned the water.

Challenging search

On Saturday, searchers found a wooden pallet as well as strapping belts, AMSA’s John Young said. The use of wooden pallets is common in the airline industry.

“It’s a possible lead … but pallets are used in the shipping industry as well,” he said Sunday. Authorities have said random debris is often found in the ocean.

The Sunday search was split into two areas that cover 59,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles), about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth.

The flying distance to and from the search area presents a big challenge for search aircraft. “They’re operating at the limits of their endurance,” Barton said. The distance is forcing searchers to spread the search out over multiple days.

Only one ship, an Australian naval vessel called HMAS Success, was involved in the Sunday search, Barton said. A Norwegian merchant ship previously involved was released in anticipation of rough weather.

No evidence turn was preprogrammed, Malaysia says

Malaysian officials, in a written update Sunday on the search, cast doubt on the theory that someone, perhaps a pilot, preprogrammed the aircraft to make an unexpected left turn during the flight.

“The last ACARS transmission, sent at 1:07 a.m., showed nothing unusual. The 1:07 a.m. transmission showed a normal routing all the way to Beijing,” it read.

The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System measures thousands of data points and sends the information via satellite to the airline, the engine manufacturer and other authorized parties, according to CNN aviation and airline correspondent Richard Quest.

Had the plane been preprogrammed to change course, the ACARS system should have reported it during its last communication at 1:07. The ACARS is supposed to report new information every 30 minutes, but it was silent at 1:37.

“It is important because it is more consistent (with an emergency). In other words, if the pilots had put in this waypoint that they were going to turn to and that they knew in advance of their last communication that they were going to turn, then everyone was (saying) that this had to be a premeditated act,” said Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and a former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Now if this information is correct, and it was not premeditated, then it does fit very closely with the scenario that, whatever happened, happened suddenly and they turned perhaps to go back to an emergency airport.”

Hope, only hope

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott voiced hope the mystery — which has spawned many theories about the fate of the plane and its occupants — would be solved.

“We have now had a number of very credible leads, and there is increasing hope — no more than hope, no more than hope — that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen to this ill-fated aircraft,” Abbott said at a press conference.

In one of the great aviation mysteries in history, the airliner carrying 239 people disappeared March 8 after it took off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on a flight to Beijing. An exhaustive search covering 2.97 million square miles — nearly the size of the continental United States — has yielded some clues, but no evidence of where the Boeing 777 is or what happened to it.

NASA satellites to be employed

A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon, one of the military’s most sophisticated reconnaissance planes, on Sunday refocused on an area highlighted in Chinese satellite images of a large object floating in the southern Indian Ocean. The object the Chinese satellite photographed is estimated to be 22.5 meters long and 13 meters wide (74 feet by 43 feet), officials said.

The plane was forced to fly at an altitude of just 300 feet because of low cloud ceilings and poor visibility.

Conditions were terrible, said Lt. Cmdr. Adam Schantz, the officer in charge of P-8 operations in Perth.

As a result of the satellite sighting, plans are under way to acquire more imagery within the next few days, NASA said Saturday.

The space agency said it will check archives of satellite data and use space-based assets such as the Earth-Observing-1 satellite and the ISERV camera on the International Space Station to scour for possible crash sites. The resolution of these images could be used to identify objects of about 98 feet (30 meters) or larger.

The floating object reported in the Chinese satellite images was about 77 miles from where earlier satellite images issued by Australia spotted floating debris.

Countries from central Asia to Australia are also engaged in the search along an arc drawn by authorities based on satellite pings received from the plane hours after it vanished.

One arc tracks the southern Indian Ocean zone that’s the focus of current attention. The other arc tracks over parts of Cambodia, Laos, China and into Kazakhstan.

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