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.
“Tomorrow’s plan is to do the same thing,” Young said Friday. “The plan is we want to find these objects because they are the best lead to where we might find people to be rescued.”
There was some speculation, however, that the objects spotted on satellite could have submerged since the pictures were captured Sunday. Australian officials said it wasn’t until Thursday that the images were reported to authorities because of a large volume of films and time needed for analysis.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Friday defended his decision to announce the satellite imagery. He said he had a duty to pass on the information to families of the missing passengers. At the same time, Abbott reiterated that the two objects detected on the film, one of them about 79 feet long, may have nothing to do with the missing jetliner.
“It could just be a container that has fallen off a ship; we just don’t know,” he said.
With the investigation of the missing airliner entering its third week this weekend, there were still many unanswered questions.
Malaysian officials Friday said they had no update on the log data that were deleted from the flight simulator made by Flight 370 pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
Asked about reports that Shah made a phone call before take-off, Malaysia Airlines’ chief executive, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, who has been a regular at the daily news conference by Malaysian officials, said Friday without elaborating that the information was being passed on to authorities.
But now more than anything else, the big question is whether the floating objects captured on satellite are from the missing plane — and if so, how long it will take to find them.
Cho Byungjae, South Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia, is one of a number of foreign diplomats staying on top of the search efforts. South Korea is sending two aircraft to the south Indian Ocean.
After coming out of a meeting with Malaysian officials Friday afternoon, Cho spoke in somewhat sobering terms. “It could take some time,” he said.
AFP Photo/Eric A. Pastor