They are, like all of the leads in the quest to find a vanished Malaysia Airlines jetliner, uncertain sightings. An object photographed by a French satellite, and reported to searchers Sunday. And something that looked like a wooden pallet, surrounded by a cluster of other objects — including some that may be tie-down straps, spotted by a single search aircraft spotted.
As the search for the missing flight 370 passes two weeks, searchers have narrowed down the area where they believe the Boeing 777 with 239 people on board could have disappeared. Now, as numerous nations train their eyes on a broad rectangle in the south Indian Ocean, they are beginning to uncover traces of something that could — but is not yet with any certainty — related to the jet.
Still, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott spoke of the “increasing hope” that searchers will find something more tangible.
If it is a pallet, for example, that could prove a key finding, since wooden pallets are used in air shipping. It could also mean nothing, since pallets are also commonly used in marine shipping.
“So it’s a possible lead, but we will need to be very certain,” said Mike Barton, Rescue Coordination Centre chief with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, speaking on Sunday afternoon.
Still, a second aircraft sent to double-check the possible pallet found nothing Saturday, as skilled searchers confront a vast and remote search area that is stretching the world’s best aviation technology to its extreme limits. The difficulty in verifying sightings — U.S. and Chinese satellites have also both located objects of interest that have not been found back by aircraft or ships — only underscores the magnitude of the job at hand. Twenty-six nations are struggling to find a missing aircraft that may have crashed into waters 2,500 kilometres south-west of Australia, among the most remote places on earth, with currents that could move floating debris as much as 150 kilometres every five days.
Flight 370 disappeared in the early morning hours of last Saturday, after deviating from its intended flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Investigators believe it was deliberately diverted, and may have continued on for seven hours flying deep into the south Indian Ocean.
On Sunday, eight aircraft — four civilian, four military — took off to search a 59,000 square kilometre area, the size of Lake Huron. The civilian planes include two Bombardier Global Express, a Gulfstream 5 and an Airbus 319, which have been put into service for their ultra long range. Most of the flying time is spent winging to and from the spot search authorities believe the aircraft is most likely to be found.
The planes are “operating at the limits of their endurance, and only having a short period of one to two hours in the search area,” said Mr. Barton. “That’s only allowing us to get in a singular search a day, which again is spreading the search out several days.”
Chinese residents make up nearly two-thirds of the people aboard the plane. Their families have grown increasingly hostile toward search officials, particularly those from Malaysia who families have seen as obfuscating and creating unnecessary delays in locating relatives. On Saturday, a Beijing tense meeting between families and Malaysian officials ended early after emotions boiled over. The two sides met again Sunday, and the families set aside a time to pray.
“I am going to go crazy soon. I am very emotionally unstable,” said a woman whose daughter was on board the plane, and who is now taking care of her grandchildren.
China has taken a significant role in the search, and has sent two Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft to Australia. Those planes are expected to begin flying to the search area Monday. China is also sending a cohort of warships and its icebreaker, the Xuelong; the first of those ships should begin to arrive in the area Tuesday.
More aircraft are being deployed in other areas farther north in the Indian Ocean, although significant attention is now being placed on the so-called “southern corridor,” where the objects were spotted by satellites.
Weather has hampered efforts in that area, which is mid-way between Australia and Antarctica. On Sunday, searchers arrived to find sea fog and low cloud, although by afternoon that had begun to clear out. A Norwegian ship that had helped the search, the car carrier Hoegh St. Petersburg, left Saturday “in anticipation of bad weather coming through. She was worried about cargo damage, and had done three days worth of work,” said John Young, general manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
The southern search area lies squarely inside the “Roaring 40s,” a band of south latitude so-called by mariners because it produces fierce weather at the best of times, including winds that frequently approach gale force.
The vastness of the ocean is another complicating factor. Sun glint can obscure objects, and aircraft move so fast that “you only have to be off by a few 100 metres” to miss something, Mr. Barton said.
Still, searchers believe they are narrowing in, in part thanks to the hints provided by satellite images. “Today’s search is about a visual search, a complete change of emphasis from earlier searching using radar,” Mr. Barton said Sunday.
“We’re into a more defined area based on the satellite imagery.”