The search area for the lost Malaysian jetliner moved 1 100km to the north-east on Friday, as Australian officials said a new analysis of radar data suggests the plane had flown faster and therefore ran out of fuel more quickly than previously estimated.
That means searchers have concluded that hundreds of floating objects detected over the last week by satellite, previously considered possible wreckage, weren't from the plane after all. But there are advantages to the new search area: It's closer to land and has calmer weather than the old one.
Nine planes were to fly over the new search area Friday and six ships were headed there, said John Young, manager of Australian Maritime Safety Authority emergency response division. “We have moved on” from the previous search area, he said.
AMSA said the change in search areas came from new information based on continuing analysis of the radar data received soon after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 lost communications and veered from its scheduled path March 8. The Beijing-bound flight carrying 239 people turned around soon after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, flew west toward the Malacca Strait and disappeared from radar.
The search area has changed several times since the plane vanished as experts analysed a frustratingly small amount of data from the aircraft, including the radar signals and “pings” that a satellite picked up for several hours after radar contact was lost.
The latest analysis indicated the aircraft was travelling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel use and reducing the possible distance the aircraft could have flown before going down in the Indian Ocean. Just as a car loses fuel efficiency when driving at high speeds, a plane will get less out of a tank of fuel when it flies faster.
Planes and ships had spent a week searching about 2 500km south-west of Perth, Australia, the base for the search. Now they are searching about 1 850km west of the city.
“This is our best estimate of the area in which the aircraft is likely to have crashed into the ocean,” Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said at a news conference in Canberra.
He said a wide range of scenarios went into the calculation. “We're looking at the data from the so-called pinging of the satellite, the polling of the satellites, and that gives a distance from a satellite to the aircraft to within a reasonable approximation,” he said. He said that information was coupled with various projections of aircraft performance and the plane's distance from the satellites at given times.
Dolan said the search now is for surface debris to give an indication of “where the main aircraft wreckage is likely to be”
“This has a long way to go.”
The new search area is about 80 percent smaller than the old one, but it remains large: about 319 000 square kilometres, about the size of Poland.
Sea depths in the new area range from 2 000m to 4 000m, Young said. There are trenches in the area that go even deeper, Australia's national science agency said in a statement. That includes the Diamantina Trench, which is up to 7 300m deep, but it was unclear whether the deepest parts of the trench are in the search area.
Young such a change in search area is not unusual.
“This is the normal business of search and rescue operations - that new information comes to light, refined analyses take you to a different place,” Young told reporters. “I don't count the original work as a waste of time.”
He said the new search zone, being about 700km closer to mainland Australia, will be easier to reach. Planes used so much fuel getting to the old search area that had only about two hours of spotting time per sortie.
The new area also has better weather conditions than the old one, where searches were regularly scrapped because of storms, high winds and low visibility.
“The search area has moved out of the ‘Roaring 40s’, which creates very adverse weather,” Young said, referring to the latitude of the previous search area. “I'm not sure that we'll get perfect weather out there, but it's likely to be better than we saw in the past.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Friday that the latest information was “a credible new lead”.
“This is an extraordinarily difficult search, and an agonising wait for family and friends of the passengers and crew,” he said. “We owe it to them to follow every credible lead and to keep the public informed of significant new developments. That is what we are doing.”
Australia's HMAS Success was expected to arrive there Saturday, Young added. The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration patrol boat Haixun 01 was also on site, and several more Chinese ships were on their way.
Malaysian officials said earlier this week that satellite data confirmed the plane crashed into the southern Indian Ocean.
Authorities are rushing to find any piece of the plane to help them locate the so-called black boxes, or flight data and voice recorders, that will help solve the mystery of why the jet, en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, flew so far off-course. The battery in the black box normally lasts for at least a month.
Officials are already preparing for the hunt for the black box. A special US Navy towed pinger locator and Bluefin-21 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle are to be fitted onto an Australian vessel, the Ocean Shield, when it reaches a port near Perth in a day or two, said a government the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
He did not say how long it would take to reach the search area.
An Australian government statement said three plane crash investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau will be aboard Ocean Shield to assist with the search. The investigators have technical expertise in maritime operations, flight data recorders, and materials and aerospace engineering, the statement said.
The official said the Chinese ships are also expected to have acoustic sensors that can listen for black box pingers.
For relatives of those missing, the various clues and failed searches so far have just added to their agonising waits.
Wang Zhen, whose parents were aboard the missing plane, said in a telephone interview in Beijing that he was becoming exasperated.
“There is nothing I can do but to wait, and wait,” he said. “I'm also furious, but what is the use of getting furious?”
If and when any bit of wreckage from Flight MH370 is recovered and identified, searchers will be able to narrow their hunt for the rest of the Boeing 777 and its flight data and cockpit voice recorders. - Sapa-AP