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Last updated: March 22, 2014 6:24 am
The hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner resumed over the southern Indian Ocean on Saturday as six aircraft from Australia and New Zealand scanned the area for signs of debris exactly two weeks after flight MH370 disappeared.
Two of the aircraft were “ultra long-range” civil jets capable of flying for five hours without refuelling. That is more than double the time in the air that previous aircraft have been capable of since Australian forces started combing the area, 2,300km southwest of Perth, four days ago.
New Zealand had sent one of its P3 Orion search aircraft, to add to three P3s from the Royal Australian Air Force, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is co-ordinating the search.
“To date, no sightings have been reported,” it said.
The two jets, a Bombardier and a Gulfstream, were chartered by AMSA.
Two merchant ships are in the search area and would be joined on Saturday afternoon by the HMAS Success, an auxiliary naval vessel used for refuelling other ships while under way.
Separately, Malaysia Airlines on Saturday issued a statement to say that a quantity of lithium ion batteries in the cargo hold of flight MH370 were on board in compliance with “International Civil Aviation Organisation and International Air Transport Association [storage] requirements”.
Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing in the early hours of March 8 and disappeared from radars within an hour. Satellite data later indicated that it had flown along one of two arcs – a northern corridor that stretches to Kazakhstan and a southern corridor that runs into the Indian Ocean.
The focus of the search shifted to an area in the southern Indian Ocean on Thursday after Australia revealed that satellite images taken on Sunday had produced a “credible” lead. On Friday, Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, appeared to temper expectations that the objects – estimated to be 24m and 5m in size – were part of the missing aircraft.
“We’ve been throwing everything we have got at that area to try to learn more about what this debris might be,” he said. “Now it could just be a container that’s fallen off a ship – we just don’t know.”
John Young, a senior AMSA official, said the reconnaissance aircraft changed their approach on Friday after detecting no signs of the objects by radar on Thursday. He said they would fly lower to make it easier for visual searches – meaning that more aircraft would be required to help comb the area properly. He added that the aircraft would have to criss-cross the area “a few times to be confident about the coverage of the search area”.
If the missing Malaysia Airlines jet came down in the southern Indian Ocean, it may never be found, one of the world’s top air accident investigators has warned.
Surveillance flights are being staggered across the day as each aircraft only has the capacity to fly roughly for two hours in the area because of fuel constraints due to the four-hour flight to and from Perth.
Hopes that MH370 might have been found rose on Thursday when Mr Abbott told Najib Razak, his Malaysian counterpart, about the new satellite images, which took several days to analyse after being captured. On Friday, Mr Abbott said he had told Xi Jinping, Chinese president, in a phone call that Australia would locate any object that was in the waters.
Warren Truss, Australia’s transport minister, on Friday told domestic radio that several countries had expressed an interest in providing resources to help the search operation but that this could take up to several days to deploy. He said the remoteness of the search area was complicating the operation.
The search teams face several challenges in locating the two objects. Aside from being some of the roughest waters in the world, the fact that five days have passed since the images were taken means that the debris could have drifted to another location, or sunk.
Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at Southampton university, said the objects would have drifted in the Antarctic circumpolar current, which travels at about 1 knot. He added that the area, commonly known as the Southern Ocean, had “quite violent” sea conditions and was feared by even the best sailors.
Ron Bishop, a former US air force flight engineer who has taken part in dozens of search operations, said it was important to locate the debris within the next 17 to 18 days while the flight recorder was likely to be emitting a signal.
“The flight recorder probably only has 17-18 days left of power when it will still be emitting an emergency signal that would really help the search operation to locate it under the water,” said Mr Bishop, who is head of aviation at Central Queensland University.
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