PERTH, AUSTRALIA - No debris spotted in an area off the west coast of Australia has been recovered, a Malaysian minister involved in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 said Saturday, adding he hoped for some news soon.
Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters near Kuala Lumpur after meeting several families of passengers on the plane that there was no new information on the objects, which could just be regular debris floating in the ocean, or could be from the missing plane.
“I’ve got to wait to get the reports on whether they have retrieved those objects. . . . Those will give us some indication,” said Hishammuddin, who was accompanied by his wife and children as he visited the relatives at a hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia.
Several planes and ships combed the newly targeted area for the objects that were first spotted Friday, including two rectangular items that were blue and gray, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.
“The objects cannot be verified or discounted as being from MH370 until they are relocated and recovered by ships,” the authority said in a statement. “It is not known how much flotsam, such as from fishing activities, is ordinarily there. At least one distinctive fishing object has been identified.”
Flight MH370 disappeared March 8 while bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and investigators have been puzzling over what might have happened aboard the plane, with speculation ranging from equipment failure and a botched hijacking to terrorism or an act by one of the pilots.
The latter was fueled by reports the pilot’s home flight simulator had files deleted from it, but Hishimmuddin said checks, including ones by the FBI, turned up no new information.
“What I know is that there is nothing sinister from the simulators but of course that will have to be confirmed by the chief of police,” he said.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said a cold front would bring rain, low clouds and reduced visibility over the southern part of the search area, with moderate winds and swells of up to 2 meters. Conditions are forecast to improve Sunday, although rain, drizzle and low clouds are still likely.
Newly analyzed satellite data shifted the search zone Friday, raising hopes searchers may be closer to getting physical evidence that the plane crashed in the Indian Ocean with 239 people aboard. That would also help narrow the hunt for the wreckage and the plane’s black boxes, which could contain clues to what caused the plane — flying to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur — to be so far off-course.
The U.S. Navy has already sent equipment that can detect pings from the back boxes, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Sydney that the equipment would be put on an Australian naval ship soon.
“It will be taken to the most prospective search area and if there is good reason to deploy it, it will be deployed,” he said, without giving a time frame. Other officials have said it could take days for the ship — the Ocean Shield — to reach the search area.
The newly targeted zone is nearly 1,130 km northeast of sites the searchers have crisscrossed for the past week. The redeployment came after analysts determined that the Boeing 777 may have been traveling faster than earlier estimates and would therefore have run out of fuel sooner, officials said.
Search planes were sent out Saturday from Perth, Australia, in a staggered manner, so at least one plane will be over the area for most of the daylight hours. It is also closer than the previous search area, with a flying time of 2 ½ hours each way, allowing for five hours of search time, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
The Australian statement said five P-3 Orions — three from Australia and one each from Japan and New Zealand — plus a Japan Coast Guard jet, a Chinese Ilyushin IL-76, and one civilian jet acting as a communications relay took part Saturday.
Abbott said the job of locating the debris was still difficult, noting, “We should not underestimate the difficulty of this work — it is an extraordinarily remote location.”
The area spans about 319,000 sq. km, roughly the size of Poland. In most places, depths range from about 2,000 meters to 4,000 meters, although the much deeper Diamantina trench edges the search area.
The hunt for the plane focused first on the Gulf of Thailand, along the plane’s planned path. But when radar data showed it had veered sharply west, the search moved to the Andaman Sea, off the western coast of Malaysia, before pivoting to the southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia.
That change was based on analysis of satellite data. But officials said a re-examination and refinement of that analysis indicated the aircraft was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel use and reducing the possible distance it could have flown before going down. Just as a car loses gas efficiency when driving at high speeds, a plane will get less out of a tank of fuel when it flies faster.
In Beijing, some relatives of the 153 Chinese passengers on the plane said the shift in the search area added to their confusion and frustration.
“What on earth is the Malaysian government doing?” asked Wang Chunjiang, whose brother was a passenger. “Is there anything more that they are hiding from us?”
If investigators can determine the plane went down in the newly targeted zone, recovery of its flight data and cockpit voice recorders could be complicated.
“There are a number of ridges, escarpments and fracture zones that run through this area, so it’s a fairly complex area,” said Rochelle Wigley, director of the Indian Ocean Mapping Project at the University of New Hampshire.
Wigley said determining the ocean floor topography within the search zone depends on its exact coordinates. While investigators appear to be focusing on an area where much of the sea floor is about 2,000 meters below the surface, depths may reach a maximum of about 6,000 meters at its easternmost edge, she said.