Missing Malaysian Flight MH370: Search area shifts after Boeing looks at engine data

Change of focus in quest for traces of lost plane yields multiple sightings of possible debris in Indian Ocean

The search for wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 moved 1,100km to the north-east yesterday following a fresh analysis of radar and satellite data. Five aircraft combing the new stretch of the Indian Ocean quickly found multiple objects which ships will try to locate on Saturday.

The search zone was re¬calibrated, bringing it considerably closer to the Western Australian coast, after data analysis indicated that the Boeing 777 – which vanished soon after taking off from Kuala Lumpur three weeks ago – was flying faster than initially estimated, and therefore would have run out of fuel more quickly.

Items spotted from the air included two rectangular objects that were blue and grey: two of the colours in the aircraft’s livery. Others were white or light-coloured. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Amsa), which is co-ordinating the hunt, said photographs of the objects would be analysed overnight.

For the past week, aircraft and ships have been crisscrossing an area about 2,500km south-west of Perth, pinpointed as the most likely spot where MH370 is presumed to have run out of fuel and crashed, killing all 239 passengers and crew.

Now search teams have moved to an area about 1,850km west of Perth, where their task will be easier. Not only is it closer to Australia, meaning spotter-planes can spend more time searching before they have to return to refuel, but the weather is more benign than further south, which is in the middle of a belt of strong westerly winds known as the Roaring Forties.

“This is our best estimate of the area in which the aircraft is likely to have crashed into the ocean,” Martin Dolan, the chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, told reporters in Canberra. The search was focusing on surface debris which could indicate where the main wreckage lay, he said, adding: “This has a long way to go.”

The new search zone – already being scoured by 10 aircraft from Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the US – is still dauntingly large: about 319,000 sq km, bigger than the entire UK. And the waters are deeper: up to 4,600 metres, according to Robin Beaman, a marine geologist and research fellow at James Cook University in Queensland.

While five aircraft, including a New Zealand Orion, spotted  objects in the water, the AMSA said it was not immediately clear whether they were potentially debris from MH370, or just “sea junk”.

A Chinese patrol ship, Haixun 01, will try to find the objects on Saturday, as will Australia’s HMAS Success, expected to reach the site by this morning. Several other Chinese ships are also on their way, and Australian satellites are being redirected.

In Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said the hundreds of objects photographed by various satellites in recent days – and also spotted from aeroplanes – could still be debris from the missing airliner, swept hundreds of miles south by ocean currents.

The new search zone was identified following a fresh analysis of data from before radar contact was lost. Analysis of engine performance by Boeing also helped investigators to estimate how long it was likely to have flown before running out of fuel and coming down in the ocean.

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Mr Hishammuddin said the new search area, “although more focused than before, remains considerable, and the search conditions, although easier than before, remain challenging”.

With no debris yet retrieved or positively identified, some relatives are still clinging to a sliver of hope. Eliz Wong Yun Yi, whose father, Wong Sai Sang, was on the flight, said: “After so many days, still no plane. We will not believe what they [Malaysian authorities] say until the plane wreckage is found.”

In Paris, the international police agency Interpol revealed on Friday that Malaysia's immigration department had not checked passengers' passports against its database at all this year before the disappearance of Flight MH370.

As a result, two passengers with stolen Austrian and Italian passports were able to board the jet on March 8.

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