Australia says planes checking new search area

Ground crew unload a RAN Sea Hawk helicopter from a Royal Australia Air Force C-17 after it landed at RAAF Base Pearce to help with the search for debris or wreckage of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Friday, March 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
Ground crew unload a RAN Sea Hawk helicopter from a Royal Australia Air Force C-17 after it landed at RAAF Base Pearce to help with the search for debris or wreckage of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Friday, March 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

PERTH, Australia (AP) – A New Zealand military plane has found objects in the Indian Ocean of the first day of searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in a new location, but officials say it will take until Saturday to determine whether they are related to the lost plane.

The search area moved 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) to the northeast on Friday, and one of the nine planes involved in the hunt found the objects, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said on Twitter.

AMSA says the find needed to be confirmed by a ship expected to arrive in the area Saturday.

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The search area for the lost Malaysian jetliner was moved 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) to the northeast 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 had been 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.

Four planes were in 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 370 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 analyzed 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 gas 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 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, Australia, the base for the search. Now they are searching about 1,850 kilometers (1,150 miles) 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, so the search area remains large: about 319,000 square kilometers (123,000 square miles). Sea depths in the new area range from 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) to 4,000 meters (13,120 feet), Young said.

“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,” Dolan 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.”

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.”

A host of images from Japanese, Thai and French satellites had given searchers hope – now apparently false – that a debris field from the plane was in the earlier search area. Collectively they detected hundreds of objects ranging from 1 meter (3 feet) to about 20 meters (65 feet) in length.

Mike Coffin, the executive director of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at Australia’s University of Tasmania, said the frequency of the apparent false alarms raised questions about the quality of the satellite data, though it’s also possible that the satellites detected real objects that were simply unrelated to the plane. Coffin has sailed in that part of the ocean and has seen trash there.

“There is all kinds of debris in the ocean,” he said. “When you are out there, you see stuff all the time.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday that the latest information was “a credible new lead.”

“This is an extraordinarily difficult search, and an agonizing 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.”

Robin Beaman, a marine geologist at Australia’s James Cook University, said the new area would be slightly “easier for searchers. It’s less distance for them to travel.”

“The weather will improve, going into those lower latitudes. You’re out of the roaring 40s zone, which is nasty,” he said. “It’s got to be better than where they currently are.”

Australia’s HMAS Success and five Chinese vessels were on their way, and that the Success was expected to arrive there late Saturday night, Young added.

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.

For relatives of those missing, the various clues and failed searches so far have just added to their agonizing 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 370 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.

Young said a U.S. Navy towed pinger locator and Bluefin-21 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle had arrived in Perth and would be fitted to an Australian vessel, the Ocean Shield. But he did not say when it would reach the search area.

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