French Photos Back Up Chinese Image of Debris in Jet Hunt

French satellite scans provided fresh indications of objects adrift in part of the Indian Ocean that’s being scoured for the missing Malaysian airliner, backing up Chinese evidence as more planes and ships join the hunt.

Eight aircraft searched 59,000 square kilometers (22,800 square miles) of sea after China yesterday revealed a satellite photo depicting a floating object 22.5 meters (74 feet) long. Radar images from French authorities show “potential objects in the vicinity,” Malaysia’s transport ministry said today.

The developments rekindled prospects for a breakthrough in the mystery of Malaysian Air Flight 370 after radar and visual scans failed to find objects spotted in earlier images taken from space. Searchers, bolstered by a growing fleet of international vessels, also want to locate a wooden pallet seen from the air to check if it could have come from the jet’s hold.

“The aircraft are operating at extreme ranges,” said Australian Maritime Safety Authority official Mike Barton, with the closest airfield 2,500 kilometers away. “They’re operating at the limits of their endurance and only having a short period of one-to-two hours in the search area.”

The Chinese photo, taken March 18, is focused 90 degrees east and almost 45 degrees south, versus almost 91 degrees east and 44 degrees south for similar items on a March 16 satellite image, putting the object 120 kilometers southwest of that sighting, according to China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.

Colored Straps

The dimensions appear similar to those of the larger of two objects seen previously, said to be 24 meters long. The Malaysian plane, a Boeing Co. 777-200, measures 63 meters, with a wingspan of 61 meters and a 6.2 meter cabin diameter.

French satellite images were received this morning and have been sent to the Australian center leading the search in the southern Indian Ocean, a Malaysian government statement said.

The French foreign affairs ministry said radar echoes had detected floating debris 2,300 kilometers from Perth and that extra satellites would be mobilized to pursue the search. No date or coordinates for the discovery were immediately provided.

Separately, the wooden pallet spotted yesterday from a civil search aircraft was among a number of small objects spread over 5 kilometers and could be of the kind used in planes, the AMSA’s Barton told reporters today, adding that there appeared to be evidence of multi-colored strapping belts around it.

Ships Converge

“The use of wooden pallets is quite common in the industry,” Barton said. “They’re usually packed into another container which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft.”

A New Zealand P3 Orion surveillance plane dispatched to the scene yesterday found only clumps of seaweed.

“The more aircraft we have, the more ships we have, the more confident we are of recovering whatever material is down there,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said today in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, according to a transcript. “Obviously before we can be too specific about what it might be, we do actually need to recover some of this material.”

As more potential debris is spotted, a growing fleet of vessels is converging on the area, while the number of planes deployed was increased to eight from six yesterday, including four long-range civil aircraft and a U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon.

HMAS Success from the Royal Australian Navy has joined the search, while the Ocean Shield, equipped with a subsea remotely operated vehicle, is on its way to the zone, as is HMS Echo, a specialist ship from Britain’s Royal Navy that’s fitted with underwater listening gear and devices to survey the seabed.

Sea Fog

The U.S. was asked by Malaysia to provide similar search technology, the Defense Department said in a statement.

Australia said two merchant vessels assisted in the hunt yesterday, while China deployed at least seven ships, according to the Xinhua News Agency, a flotilla that reflects the urgency it attaches to finding Flight 370, whose complement of 239 passengers and crew included more than 150 Chinese.

Sea fog hampered the search early today before conditions improved, though there were “no sightings of significance” before nightfall, the AMAS said.

Two Chinese Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft will join the hunt from Perth tomorrow and two Japanese P3 Orions left for the West Australian city today, the Malaysian government said.

FBI Role

Two Indian military planes are also headed to the northern part of the zone. A U.S. Orion plane is operating out of Malaysia and is scanning south of Indonesia in the vicinity of the Cocos Islands, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail. The plane had previously been searching for debris in the Bay of Bengal.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation also joined the probe as Malaysian authorities seek data from a home-computer flight simulator belonging to the jet’s captain.

The FBI has received “digital media” from Malaysian authorities, including information from the simulator’s hard drive, and technicians are examining the data in Virginia, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the case who asked not to be named because the probe is ongoing.

Investigators are trying to learn more about what the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, did on the simulator, and part of that effort involves trying to examine files that may have been deleted from the drive, the official said.

FBI agent Michael Kortan, a spokesman for the bureau, declined to comment. The simulator hasn’t produced any clear lead yet for investigators, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday.

Tropical Cyclone

Neither have authorities found any link between the aircraft’s cargo, which included lithium batteries, and its disappearance, Hishammuddin said.

“My biggest concern is that if we are not able to identify the debris, having to go back to the two corridors is a huge and massive area,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said that the jet emitted pulse-like signals to a satellite about seven hours after last making voice contact, shifting the focus of the search to two arcs, one extending north to Kazakhstan and the other into the southern Indian Ocean.

In the northern zone, there have been no indications of the missing airplane on radar in China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Laos, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Hishammuddin said.

Already facing strong currents and rough seas, the Indian Ocean search could be disrupted by Severe Tropical Cyclone Gillian, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, head of Malaysia’s civil aviation authority, told reporters near Kuala Lumpur airport.

Steady Flight

The storm is about 2,500 kilometers northwest of Perth, having passed over Christmas Island, and tracking slowly south.

An analysis of satellite pings shows that the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. 777 may have flown steadily across the ocean after diverting from its scheduled route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. That assessment gave the clearest idea yet on how investigators pinpointed a search zone.

Engineers at Inmarsat Plc, whose satellite picked up the pings, plotted seven positions for the jet on March 8, Chris McLaughlin, a company spokesman, said in an interview. The plane flew steadily away from the satellite over the equator while pinging, McLaughlin said.

The data helped investigators conclude that the most logical path was progressively either north or south, with the bulk of seach efforts focused on the south.

“I hope that we’ll find the time soon when we’re able to conclusively say once and for all that we are close to finding where this plane may now be located, and that there can be some kind of closure for families,” Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told reporters today. “We will continue as long as there’s hope.”

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