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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

By Don Lee, Tribune Washington Bureau

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Despite better weather conditions Friday and the use of some of the world’s most advanced surveillance aircraft, an Australian-led search operation came up empty on its second day of scouring the south Indian Ocean for possible debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Several military aircraft, a commercial jet and two merchant ships combed a large area about 1,500 miles off the coast of Perth, Australia, where two objects had been spotted on satellite imagery. Australian officials reported the images Thursday and said they could be related to the missing jetliner. The weather was fair Friday, making for much better visibility than on Thursday, said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Though the search efforts in the area are intensifying, with a number of aircraft, ships and helicopters from China, Japan and other countries heading toward the vicinity, the absence of early success provided a kind of reality check after hopes rose Thursday of a possible breakthrough in the mystery of the Boeing 777 that vanished after departing Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing on March 8.

“This is going to be a long haul,” said Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, at a news conference. Among other things, he said, he would ask U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Friday for additional help, including deep-sea salvage vehicles.

Thus far, the aircraft search operations in the area have included four Australian air force P3 Orions, one U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon and a New Zealand P3 Orion. On Thursday, rain and clouds largely limited the search to radar, but aircraft crews Friday were able to make visual inspections flying over the area.

Still, it is “a big area when you’re looking out the window trying to see something by eye,” said John Young, general manager of the Emergency Response Division at the Australian maritime agency. The search area is about 8,900 square miles, slightly smaller than the size of New Hampshire.

What’s more, because of the long distance to fly to that section of the ocean, the aircraft have only about two hours of actual search time before needing to return for refueling.