By Michael Sin and Iain McDonald
March 28 (Bloomberg) — The hunt for Malaysian Air Flight 370 shifted focus for the third time in as many weeks after new analysis indicated the plane could have gone down hundreds of miles from the previous search area.
The lead is based on radar and performance data as the jet flew between the South China Sea and Malacca Strait, authorities said. It shows the Boeing Co. 777 moved faster, using more fuel, and may not have crashed as far south as estimated earlier.
“This will remain a somewhat inexact science,” Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said of the planes’s speed, adding that ongoing analysis “could result in further refinement of the potential flight path.” The new search zone, 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) to the northeast, assumes it traveled at close to constant velocity.
A New Zealand P3 Orion surveillance plane was among aircraft that spotted objects in the revised zone today, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. The sightings need to be confirmed by ship, with one due to arrive there tomorrow, it said. The search area is about 1,850 kilometers west of Perth and spans 319,000 square kilometers, compared with an 80,000- kilometer region that planes and boats were scouring yesterday.
Because the search zone announced today is closer to Australia than previous locations, aircraft have more time over the ocean. The hunt also moves outside of the so-called Roaring Forties, a region between the 40th and 50th degrees of latitude south known for strong winds and wave conditions. Ocean depth in the area ranges from 2,000 meters to 4,000 meters.
“This is the most credible lead to where debris may be located,” AMSA said in a statement.
Five aircraft spotted “multiple objects of various colors” before today’s search concluded with 256,000 square miles covered. The New Zealand Orion sighted white or light items and a fishing buoy, with an Australian plane reporting two blue or gray floating objects after relocating the debris.
A second Australian P3 saw colored items in a separate part of the zone 546 kilometers away, AMSA said. Photographs of the various items have been captured and will be analyzed overnight.
A Chinese patrol boat, the Haixun 01, is in the area and should be in position to relocate the objects tomorrow, when the weather is forecast to be “reasonable,” the agency said. An Australian ship and other Chinese vessels are also relocating to the new zone, and the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation is re-tasking satellites to scan the zone, it said.
The search for Flight MH370 initially focused on the Gulf of Thailand, south of Vietnam, before switching to the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea after radar data showed that the plane had backtracked west across the Malaysian peninsular.
The hunt was then extended thousands of miles from the original search zone after analysis of satellite signals suggested the plane had continued flying for five hours in one of two possible arcs over the Indian Ocean or Asian landmass.
Inmarsat Plc concluded this week that the profile of satellite pings showed the jet definitely took the southern arc, prompting Malaysian Airline System Bhd. to say that the 777 had crashed into the ocean and that there was no hope of survivors.
Satellite sightings had appeared to be helping the multinational search to home in on wreckage from the aircraft that vanished on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew.
Photos from a Thai orbiter on March 24 showed more than 300 objects measuring 2 meters to 15 meters floating 2,700 kilometers southwest of Perth, an area close to prior sightings from space. A Japanese satellite detected a dozen pieces of possible debris in a March 26 image, Kyodo News Service said.
Areas where satellite images had previously shown objects in the ocean were checked and no plane wreckage had been found, Andrea Hayward-Maher, an AMSA spokeswoman, said today.
“Because of ocean drift, this new search area could still be consistent with the potential objects identified by various satellite images over the past week,” Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told journalists.
Weather conditions were better today and 10 aircraft including five P3 Orions and a P-8 Poseidon were tasked with scouring the oceans, according to AMSA. The U.S. will send a second P-8 Poseidon to assist in a hunt that includes planes from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, China and Japan.
Since the focus shifted to the south Indian Ocean more than a week ago, planes have made multiple sightings of debris, including a wooden pallet with straps and unidentified green and orange objects, none of which have been recovered.
The Malaysian aircraft may have cruised steadily across the Indian Ocean after diverting from its route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, Inmarsat said last week. The jet flew over the equator and away from the satellite, according to analysis by the engineers, spokesman Chris McLaughlin McLaughlin said.
The U.S. is sending equipment that can be towed behind a ship to help locate the aircraft’s black boxes, which can emit pings for 30 days after becoming immersed in water. Recovery of the data and cockpit-voice recorders from the 777 would help investigators decipher the plane’s movements and its pilots’ actions in the hours after contact was lost.
The pinger locater and underwater vehicle have arrived in Perth, AMSA said.
The search for debris is critical so “we can reverse- forecast the wind, current and sea state since March 8 to recreate the position where MH370 possibly went into the water,” Commander Tom Moneymaker, an oceanographer with the U.S. 7th Fleet, said in a Navy News Service article.
“This is still an attempt to search a very large area, and for surface debris, which will give us an indication of where the main aircraft wreckage is likely to be,” Dolan said at a briefing in Canberra. “This has a long way to go yet.”
–With assistance from David Fickling, Edward Johnson and Chris Bourke in Sydney, David Lerman in Washington and Kyunghee Park in Singapore.
Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.