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This graphic shows possible search routes for the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 missing plane.
Credit: CNN

'Best lead' in plane search: 2 objects seen in sea
KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press
SCOTT MCDONALD, Associated Press


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Search planes joined a freighter early Friday to scan rough seas in one of the remotest places on Earth after satellite images detected possible pieces from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane in the southern Indian Ocean.

In what officials called the "best lead" of the nearly 2-week-old aviation mystery, a satellite detected two large objects floating about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) off the southwestern coast of Australia and halfway to the desolate islands of the Antarctic. The area is so remote is takes aircraft longer to fly there — four hours — than it does for the search.

The development raised new hope of finding the vanished jet and sent another emotional jolt to the families of the 239 people aboard.

Australian authorities said in a statement early Friday that the search had turned up nothing so far. Efforts were resuming with the first of five aircraft — a Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion — leaving the base in Western Australia for the search around dawn. A civilian Gulfstream jet and a second Orion were expected to depart later Friday morning and a third Orion was due to fly out in the early afternoon to scour more than 13,000 square miles (35,000 square kilometers) of ocean.

A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft was scheduled to leave the base at about 4 p.m. (0600 GMT), but like the other planes, it will have enough fuel for only a few hours before returning to Perth.

"It is a very long journey to the site and unfortunately, aircraft can only have one or two hours over the search area before they need to return to the mainland for fuel," Warren Truss, who is currently Australia's acting prime minister while Tony Abbott is overseas, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. He said that weather conditions in the area were poor and may get worse.

"And so clearly this is a very, very difficult and challenging search. Weather conditions are not particularly good and risk that they may deteriorate," Truss said.

One of the objects on the satellite image was 24 meters (almost 80 feet) long and the other was 5 meters (15 feet). There could be other objects in the area, a four-hour flight from Australia, said John Young, manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's emergency response division.

"This is a lead, it's probably the best lead we have right now," Young said. He cautioned that the objects could be seaborne debris along a shipping route where containers can fall off cargo vessels, although the larger object is longer than a container.

Truss said officials were working to get more satellite images and stronger resolution to help searchers get a better sense of where the objects are and how far they've shifted since the initial images were captured. "They will have moved because of tides and wind and the like, so the search area is quite broad," Truss said, adding that marker buoys were dropped to help get a better understanding of what drift is likely to have occurred.

The Norwegian cargo vessel Hoegh St. Petersburg, with a Filipino crew of 20, arrived in the area and used searchlights after dark to look for debris. It will continue the search Friday, said Ingar Skiaker of Hoegh Autoliners, speaking to reporters in Oslo.

The Norwegian ship, which transports cars, was on its way from South Africa to Australia, he said. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said another commercial ship and an Australian navy vessel were also en route to the search area.

Satellite imagery experts said the lead is worth investigating.

"It would be very nice if you could see a whole wing floating there, then you could say, 'OK that's an airplane,'" said Sean O'Connor, an imagery analyst with IHS Jane's. In the case of these satellite images, "you can't tell what it is" so closer examination is critical.

Another analyst said the debris is most likely not pieces of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. There have been several false leads since the Boeing 777 disappeared March 8 above the Gulf of Thailand en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"The chances of it being debris from the airplane are probably small, and the chances of it being debris from other shipping are probably large," said Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

The development marked a new phase for the anguished relatives of the passengers, who have been critical of Malaysian officials for what the relatives say has been the slow release of timely information. While they still hope their loved ones will somehow be found, they acknowledged that news of the satellite images could mean the plane fell into the sea.

"If it turns out that it is truly MH370, then we will accept that fate," said Selamat Bin Omar, the father of a Malaysian passenger. The jet carried mostly Chinese and Malaysian nationals.

But he cautioned that relatives still "do not yet know for sure whether this is indeed MH370 or something else. Therefore, we are still waiting for further notice from the Australian government."

Malaysian officials met with the relatives Thursday night in a hotel near Kuala Lumpur, but journalists were kept away. After the meeting, groups of people left looking distraught.

Hamid Amran, who had a child on Flight 370, said questions asked at the meeting made it "apparent that Malaysia's military is incapable of protecting its own airspace."

He believes "that my child and all the other passengers are still alive. I will not give up hope."

Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said the relatives in Kuala Lumpur were being given updates by high-level officials "two or three times a day."

"We do take care of the next of kin," he said, adding that if the debris is located "close to Australia, we will obviously make arrangements to fly the next of kin there."

A group of Malaysian government and airline officials flew Thursday night to Beijing to meet families there.

Young said the ocean in the search area is thousands of meters (feet) deep.

DigitalGlobe, a Longmont, Colo.-based company, said it provided the images to Australian officials. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority released two images of the whitish objects. They were taken March 16, but Australian Air Commodore John McGarry said it took time to analyze them.

"The task of analyzing imagery is quite difficult, it requires drawing down frames and going through frame by frame," he said.

The hunt has encountered other false leads. Oil slicks that were seen did not contain jet fuel. A yellow object thought to be from the plane turned out to be sea trash. Chinese satellite images showed possible debris, but nothing was found.

But this is the first time that possible objects have been spotted since the search area was massively expanded into two corridors, one stretching from northern Thailand into Central Asia and the other from the Strait of Malacca to the southern Indian Ocean.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein made it clear Thursday that although international search efforts are continuing both on land and in sea in the northern and southern hemispheres, the effort is mostly concentrated south of the equator over the vast Indian Ocean.

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.

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

___

Gelineau reported from Sydney, Australia. Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk and Todd Pitman in Kuala Lumpur; Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; Raphael Satter in London; and Julia Gronnevet in Oslo, Norway, contributed to this report.
 

Chelsea J. Carter, Kyung Lah and Mike Pearson

CNN

PERTH, Australia (CNN) -- The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 resumed Friday in the southern Indian Ocean with long-range reconnaissance aircraft looking for possible debris from the jetliner in one of the most remote locations on Earth.

Aircraft from Australia, New Zealand and the United States have staggered departures to an area roughly 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, where two objects were captured on satellite and described as possible pieces of the commercial jetliner, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Given the distance from Australia to where the objects were spotted by a commercial satellite, the aircraft will only have between two and three hours to traverse the search area before having to start the return journey, the maritime authority said.

Along with the aircraft, a motley collection of merchant ships are heading to the search area, where they will join a massive Norwegian cargo ship diverted to the area Thursday at the request of Australia.

The sailors aboard the Norwegian ship worked throughout the night looking for the objects, said Erik Gierchsky, a spokesman for the Norwegian Shipowners Association.

"All men are on deck to continue the search," he told CNN. "They are using lights and binoculars."

Authorities were hoping for better results after poor weather hindered Thursday's search for the debris photographed Sunday by a commercial satellite.

Even before suspending the search Thursday night, authorities cautioned the objects could be something other than plane wreckage, such as shipping containers that had fallen off a passing vessel.

But they said they represent the best lead so far in the search for the airliner that vanished 13 days ago with 239 passengers and crew en route from Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"At least there is a credible lead," Malaysia's interim Transportation Secretary Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters. "That gives us hope. As long as there's hope, we will continue."

Australian officials first announced the news to the world in a briefing closely watched by relatives of some of the missing at the Lido hotel in Beijing. They gathered around a large-screen television to watch the Australian news conference, leaning forward in their chairs, hanging on every word. Some sighed loudly.

Wen Wancheng, 63, of Jinan, China, said he has not given up hope that his son is still alive.

"I firmly believe that my son, together with everyone on board, will all survive," he told CNN.

While Hishammuddin said efforts are intensifying around the site of the Australian discovery, he said the search will continue across the massive search zone until authorities can give the families answers.

"For the families around the world, the one piece of information that they want most is the information we just don't have: the location of MH370," he said.

The objects

Satellites captured images of the objects about 14 miles (23 kilometers) from each other and about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) southwest of Australia's west coast. The area is a remote, rarely traveled expanse of ocean far from commercial shipping lanes.

The commercial satellite images, taken Sunday, show two indistinct objects of "reasonable size," with the largest about 24 meters (79 feet) across, said John Young, general manager of emergency response for the Australian maritime agency.

They appear to be "awash with water and bobbing up and down," Young said.

The objects could be from the plane, but they could be also something else -- like a shipping container -- caught in swirling currents known for creating garbage patches in the open ocean, he said.

"It is probably the best lead we have right now," Young said. "But we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it's really meaningful or not."

It took four days for the images to reach the authority "due to the volume of imagery being searched, and the detailed process of analysis that followed," the agency said in a prepared statement.

The size of the objects concerned David Gallo, one of the leaders of the search for Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

"It's a big piece of aircraft to have survived something like this," he said, adding that if it is from the aircraft, it could be part of the tail.

The tail height of a Boeing 777, the model of the missing Malaysian plane, is 60 feet.

Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said she believes Australian officials would not have announced the find if they weren't fairly sure of what they had discovered.

"There have been so many false leads and so many starts and changes and then backtracking in the investigation," she said. "He wouldn't have come forward and said if they weren't fairly certain."

Although the overall search area spans a huge expanse of 3 million square miles, U.S. officials have been insistent in recent days that the aircraft is likely to be found somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

Wide search continues

Until searchers make a confirmed find of debris from the aircraft, the search and rescue operation will continue throughout the search zone, Hishammuddin said.

Even as the focus shifted to the southern Indian Ocean, Hishammuddin said Malaysia was sending two aircraft to search Kazakhstan in central Asia. That's one of the locations along a northern corridor described as a possible location for the aircraft based on satellite pings sent by the plane after air traffic controllers lost contact with it in the early hours of March 8.

Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and China were searching their territories, Hishammuddin said.

India said Thursday it is searching in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, sending four warships and three aircraft to scour the region. That area is far north of the region where Australian forces were leading the search for the photographed objects, but in an area previously identified as a possible crash site for the plane.

Meanwhile, 18 ships, 29 aircraft and six helicopters were taking part in the search in the southern corridor, where search efforts were intensifying in the area around the Australian satellite find.

Following the Australian announcement, China said it had redirected some of its ships to the southern Indian Ocean. The closest of the ships was 2,300 nautical miles from the search area, Navy spokesman Liang Yang said in a statement on the Chinese navy's website.

In addition to the Australian and U.S. surveillance planes that flew over the area Thursday afternoon, two other planes were being dispatched to the region, including a New Zealand Air Force Orion and an Australian C-130 Hercules. That aircraft was tasked by Australian authorities to drop marker buoys in the area, Young said.

"The first thing they need to do is put eyes on the debris from one of the aircraft," said aviation expert Bill Waddock. The buoys will mark the place and transmit location data.

In addition to the Norwegian vehicle carrier Höegh St. Petersburg, which arrived Thursday afternoon, a second merchant ship and the Australian naval vessel HMAS Success were steaming to the site. The Success was "some days away," Hishammuddin said.

The Malaysian navy has six ships with three helicopters heading to the southern Indian Ocean to take part in the search, a Malaysian government source said.

"Verification might take some time. It is very far, and it will take some time to locate and verify the objects," the source said.

Other angles

Although much attention was focused on the ocean search, investigators continue to follow other leads in the plane's disappearance.

Among the many theories put forth since the plane's disappearance is that one or both of the pilots were responsible in some way for the aircraft's disappearance, especially in light of revelations that appear to show that a sharp, unplanned turn in the flight path had been programmed into the plane's flight management system before one of the pilots gave a routine sign-off to Malaysian air traffic controllers.

On Thursday, a U.S. official familiar with the investigation told CNN that an FBI team is confident that it will be able to retrieve at least some files deleted from the hard drive of a flight simulator owned by Flight 370 Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

Investigators will also analyze websites that Zaharie and co-pilot Fariq Ab Hamid may have visited recently, the official said on the condition of anonymity.

Kyung Lah reported from Perth. Chelsea J. Carter and Mike Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Mitra Mobasherat, Atika Shubert and Jim Clancy in Kuala Lumpur, David McKenzie and Pauline Chiou in Beijing, and Jethro Mullen in Hong Kong contributed to this report. Ben Brumfield, Pamela Brown, Pedram Jahaveri, Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz also contributed to this report.

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