Ships and spy planes were searching remote, storm-driven seas Thursday, seeking two large floating objects photographed days earlier by a satellite in what may be a breakthrough in the lost Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished nearly two weeks ago on a flight to Beijing.
The aerial search, cancelled as darkness fell, will resume at dawn Friday.
Even if the floating debris is from the lost Boeing 777 with 239 people on board, it would have drifted for two weeks in some of the world's roughest and most wind-driven sections of ocean. Somewhere, hundreds of kilometres away, would be the crash site and it may take months to locate, if it is ever found.
With winter approaching in the southern hemisphere, bringing fouler weather and longer darkness, the search for the Malaysian jetliner could become even tougher, if the plane is – as investigators now suspect – in the southern Indian Ocean.
The floating wreckage is not likely to provide any clues as to why the big, twin-engined jet abruptly changed course barely an hour out of Kuala Lumpur on March 8, nor why someone on board turned off the plane's transponder – which broadcasts position, speed, altitude and identification details to air-traffic control – and cut flow of data to another communications system leaving the plane silent and hard to detect.
The two oblong objects were photographed about 2,500 kilometres southwest of Perth, Australia's main west coast city, and not far from the southern arc where the last "handshake" came from the Boeing 777's not-completely disabled satellite communications system. That last satellite contact was about the same time the aircraft would have run out of fuel, more than seven hours after the last cryptic, but routine, voice communication from the cockpit.
The satellite photos of the possible debris were taken on Sunday, but only detected later, after thousands of images were checked. Several Australian and New Zealand long-range Orion maritime patrol aircraft were searching the area on Thursday. A U.S. Poseidon P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft was due in the vicinity on Friday.
"Visibility wasn't very good, which makes it harder to search," said Kevin Short, air vice-marshal at New Zealand's Defence Forces, adding the Orion crews had been flying as low as 300 metres above the waves.
A Norwegian merchant ship, the Hoegh St. Petersburg, bound for Melbourne, changed course and was standing by in the area Thursday after a request from Australia, which is now co-ordinating the southern zone of the search. However, until the wreckage – two large sections floating awash and each roughly 20-metres long – is sighted by aircraft, it will be almost impossible to find from a ship.
When Air France Flight 447 crashed in 2009 over the mid-Atlantic tropics, the tail fin and other floating wreckage was quickly located, but it took two years to find the bulk of the Airbus A330 and the black boxes, which unravelled the mystery of that crash.
The open ocean is littered with debris, from old wooden pallets to wrecked shipping containers. While an aircraft crash may initially create a sizable patch of debris and – if fuel is still on board – a slick, after two weeks it will be widely dispersed and some may have sunk. For instance, wing sections are relatively light and, if empty of fuel, will float if they break away on impact. But they are also vented and will probably sink within hours or days, especially in rough weather.
Still, after days of false alarms and accusations of withholding information, Malaysian authorities claimed the satellite picture of floating debris was "a credible lead," according to Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, speaking in Kuala Lumpur.
But like previous sightings of wreckage adrift, this one may also prove unrelated.
"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," Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney told The Associated Press.
If the wreckage is from Flight 370, it will, at least, put an end to the wild and often inane rumours about the missing Boeing 777 being spotted at remote Asian airfields or buzzing low over coastlines as far away as the Maldives.
"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 on the jet, which carried mostly Chinese and Malaysian nationals. In China, fury is growing among family members of the missing as weeks pass with no credible information as to the fate of their loved ones.
The satellite images from DigitalGlobe, a U.S. company, were taken March 16.
"It's credible enough. … It provides a promising lead to what might be wreckage from the debris field," Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore John McGarry said in Canberra.
Along with the Norwegian cargo ship, an Australian warship was on its way to the area. The Chinese ice breaker, Xuelong, currently in Perth after being stuck in the Antarctic ice pack earlier this southern hemisphere summer, will also head for the area.
Aviation investigators believe that, minutes after someone in the cockpit of the Boeing 777 switched off its transponder as it crossed Gulf of Thailand, the plane turned sharply west, after a new course was keyed into its flight management computer. Then it may have recrossed the Malay Peninsula before vanishing.