KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – 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 Indian Ocean.
In what officials called the “best lead” of the nearly two-week-old aviation mystery, a satellite detected two large objects floating about 1,000 miles off the southwestern coast of Australia and halfway to the desolate islands of the Antarctic. The area is so remote it takes aircraft longer to fly there — four hours — than it does for the search.
The development raised new hope of finding the jet and sent another emotional jolt to 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 of ocean.
A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft joined the search, but like other planes, it had enough fuel for only a few hours before returning to Perth.
Arduous flight to search site
“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,” said Warren Truss, Australia’s acting prime minister while Tony Abbott is overseas. Weather at the site was poor, he said.
“Clearly this is a very, very difficult and challenging search. Weather conditions are not particularly good,” he said.
One of the objects on the satellite image was almost 80 feet long and the other was 15 feet. There could be other objects in the area, a four-hour flight from Australia, said John Young of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division.
“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 have shifted. “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.
Scanning in the dark
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 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 pursuing.
“It would be very nice if you could see a whole wing floating there, then you could say, ‘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 was doubtful. “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.