20 Mar 2014

Orions checking for possible plane debris

10:27 pm on 20 March 2014

Search planes have been diverted to find two objects in the southern Indian Ocean which Australian officials say are possibly related to the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) says it has received an expert assessment of commercial satellite imagery of objects it suspects may be debris from the plane, one measuring 24 metres and another five metres.

A satellite image of the larger object in the southern Indian Ocean.

A satellite image of the larger object in the southern Indian Ocean. Photo: Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation

Teams from 26 countries are trying to find flight MH370, which vanished with 239 people on board, including two New Zealanders, after it left Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing on 8 March. An Australian Air Force surveillance is in the area and three more planes, including a New Zealand Air Force Orion, will get there on Thursday night.

Malaysia says the plane was intentionally diverted and could have flown on either a northern or southern arc from its last known position in the Malacca Straits. Investigators are looking into the possibility that the aircraft's crew - or other individuals on the plane - were involved in its disappearance.

News of the discovery was announced by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Parliament on Thursday afternoon, who said "new and credible information has come to light" relating to the search, the ABC reports.

Australian Air Force crew are leading the southern search.

Australian Air Force crew are leading the southern search. Photo: AFP / Royal Australia Air Force

"The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) has received information based on satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search. Following specialist analysis of this satellite imagery, two possible objects related to the search have been identified."

Mr Abbott said he had spoken with Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak, but cautioned that the objects had yet to be identified.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said the Government would continue to offer its assistance.

"The Australian Prime Minister isn't going to make those comments in Parliament unless he's fairly confident of his information. I think for the New Zealand families involved, it'll be a time of real stress and in a sense an acknowledgement of probably what they've been fearing the most - that their loved-ones are no longer alive, if that's the case. But look, let's wait and see."

On the flight were New Zealanders Ximin Wang, 50, from Auckland and mining contractor Paul Weeks, 38, who was based in Perth.

New Zealand's Air Vice Marshall Kevin Short said crew will be searching in the dark but they have a latitude and longitude, and will be able to pick the objects up on radar.

"They're images that look prospective debris from an aircraft - but they could equally be debris that's come from other objects, perhaps a broken-up yacht from years ago. So that's why we need to get something very close and identify using electro-optics and visually."

Best lead we have - AMSA

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokesperson John Young said the objects were found about 2500km south-west of Perth.

An Australian Orion has arrived in the area after a four-hour flight and three more planes will get there about 10.30pm on Thursday (NZ time). They have just three hours to search site in darkness before having to return to Perth at about 5am on Friday.

Mr Young said the objects are indistinct, but credible. "On this particular occasion, the size and the fact that there are a number located in the same area really makes it worth looking at.

"This is a lead, it is probably the best lead we have right now. But we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it's really meaningful or not. They'll be difficult to find, they may not be associated with the aircraft and we have plenty of experience of that in other searches."

Mr Young said weather conditions are moderate in the southern Indian Ocean, but poor visibility has been reported and this would hamper air and satellite efforts. Other satellites have also been diverted to check out the area. A merchant ship is expected to arrive on Thursday night and the Australian warship HMAS Success is also on its way.

Relatives were removed from the media centre.

Relatives were removed from the media centre. Photo: AFP

Relatives dragged from briefing

Frustration with the search for the plane boiled over into chaotic scenes on Wednesday as Chinese relatives were dragged away from journalists outside the daily news conference about the search in Kuala Lumpur. More than half the people on the missing plane are Chinese.

The family members were carrying banners criticising the handling of the case and were attempting to speak to Chinese journalists, the BBC reports.

One of the relatives, a middle-aged woman, cried: "They give different messages every day! Where's the flight now? Find our relatives! Find the aircraft!"

The Malaysian government said later it regretted the scenes and ordered an investigation, saying "one can only imagine the anguish they are going through".