Search planes flying out of Australia on Friday began a difficult hunt through rough seas in one of the remotest places on Earth for objects that may be from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
In what one official called the “best lead” of the nearly 2-week-old aviation mystery, a satellite detected two large objects floating off the southwest coast of Australia about halfway to the desolate islands of the Antarctic.
The area in the southern Indian Ocean is so remote is takes aircraft longer to fly there – four hours – than it allows for the search.
The discovery raised new hope of finding the vanished jet and sent another emotional jolt to the families of the 239 people aboard.
A search Thursday with four planes in cloud and rain found nothing, and Australian authorities said Friday efforts had resumed with two Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion planes and an ultra-long-range Bombardier Global Express arriving at the area about 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) from western Australia.
A third Orion was in the air, while a US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft was scheduled to leave at 4 pm (0600 GMT) – but like the other planes, it will have enough fuel for only two to three hours of search time before returning to Perth.
A New Zealand P-3 Orion plane took part in the unsuccessful search Thursday. Mike Yardley, an air commodore with New Zealand’s air force, said the plane was forced to duck below thick clouds and fog to a very low altitude of 60 meters (200 feet), hampering the operation.
But Yardley was optimistic that the searchers will find the objects. “We will find it – I’m sure about that piece of it. The only reason we wouldn’t find it was that it has sunk,” he said of the large unidentified object spotted by the satellite.
“I’ve been on these missions before when it’s taken a few days to come across it,” he said.
Warren Truss, Australia’s acting prime minister while Tony Abbott is overseas, told Australian Broadcasting Corp that weather conditions in the search area were poor and may get worse.
“And so clearly this is a very, very difficult and challenging search. Weather conditions are not particularly good and risk that they may deteriorate,” Truss said.
Speaking at a news conference in Papua New Guinea, Abbott said, “We’ve been throwing everything we’ve got at that area to try to learn more about what this debris might be.”
He said that the objects “could just be a container that’s fallen off a ship – we just don’t know.”
Abbott spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he described as “devastated.” Of the 227 passengers on the missing flight, 154 were from China.
“It’s about the most inaccessible spot that you could imagine on the face of the earth, but if there is anything down there we will find it. We owe it to the families of those people to do no less,” Abbott said.
One of the objects on the satellite image was 24 meters (almost 80 feet) long – which is longer than a standard container – and the other was 5 meters (15 feet). There could be other objects in the area, a four-hour flight from Australia, John Young, manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division, said Thursday.
“This is a lead, it’s probably the best lead we have right now,” Young said. He cautioned that the objects could be seaborne debris along a busy shipping route.
Truss said officials were checking more satellite images with stronger resolution to find out how far the objects might have shifted since the initial images were captured. “They will have moved because of tides and wind and the like, so the search area is quite broad,” Truss said.
The Norwegian cargo vessel Hoegh St Petersburg, with a Filipino crew of 20, arrived in the area and used lights to search overnight before resuming a visual search Friday, said Ingar Skiaker of Hoegh Autoliners, speaking to reporters in Oslo.
The Norwegian ship, which transports cars, was on its way from South Africa to Australia, he said. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said another commercial ship and an Australian navy vessel were also en route to the search area.
Three Chinese naval ships were heading to the area. China’s search and rescue agency also said it had asked the country’s Oceanic Administration to dispatch the icebreaker Xue Long (the Snow Dragon), which was in Perth following a voyage to the Antarctica in January, to take part in the search.
There have been several false leads since the Boeing 777 disappeared March 8 above the Gulf of Thailand en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and one analyst cautioned against rising hopes the objects are from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
“The chances of it being debris from the airplane are probably small, and the chances of it being debris from other shipping are probably large,” said Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
The development also marked a new phase for the anguished relatives of the passengers, who have been critical of Malaysian officials for what the relatives say has been the slow release of timely information. While they still hope their loved ones will somehow be found, they acknowledged that news of the satellite images could mean the plane fell into the sea.
“If it turns out that it is truly MH370, then we will accept that fate,” said Selamat Omar, the father of a Malaysian passenger. The jet carried mostly Chinese and Malaysian nationals.
But he cautioned that relatives still “do not yet know for sure whether this is indeed MH370 or something else. Therefore, we are still waiting for further notice from the Australian government.”
Malaysian officials met with the relatives Thursday night in a hotel near Kuala Lumpur, but journalists were kept away. After the meeting, groups of people left looking distraught.
Hamid Amran, who had a child on Flight 370, said questions asked at the meeting made it “apparent that Malaysia’s military is incapable of protecting its own airspace.”
He believes “that my child and all the other passengers are still alive. I will not give up hope.”
The hunt has encountered other false leads. Oil slicks that were seen did not contain jet fuel. A yellow object thought to be from the plane turned out to be sea trash. Chinese satellite images showed possible debris, but nothing was found.
Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation for what happened to the jet, but have said the evidence so far suggests it was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.
Police are considering the possibility of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board.