Up to 10 planes and nine ships from a half dozen countries are
scouring a stretch of the Indian Ocean roughly the size of Britain,
where the plane is believed to have crashed more than three weeks
The search and rescue teams are in a race against time to locate the
plane's black box recorder, which has an expected battery life of
around 30 days and without which it may never be possible to explain
the plane's mysterious disappearance.
Retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the head of the Australian
agency coordinating the operation, said that a lack of reliable
flight telemetry and punishing conditions at sea were making the
operation even more challenging.
"In other words, we don't have a precise aircraft location for six
hours before the aircraft went into the water somewhere," he said in
an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on
"The reality is it's the most complex and challenging search and
rescue operation, or search and recovery operation now, that I've
Malaysian authorities have still not ruled out mechanical problems
as causing the disappearance, but say all the evidence suggests the
plane was deliberately diverted from its scheduled route from Kuala
Lumpur to Beijing.
On Wednesday, Malaysia's police chief said the investigation was
focusing on the cabin crew and pilots, after clearing all 227
passengers of possible involvement in hijacking, sabotage or having
personal or psychological problems that could have been connected to
the flight's disappearance.
"They have been cleared of the four," National police chief Khalid
Abu Bakar was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama.
Broken clouds, sea fog and isolated thunderstorms were expected to
further complicate operations on Wednesday, Australia's Joint Agency
Coordination Centre said.
The search is now focused on an inhospitable 221,000 sq km (85,000
sq miles) swathe of the southern Indian Ocean some 1,500 km (932
miles) west of the Australian city of Perth. But despite the
unprecedented effort, the international team has so far failed to
spot any trace of the jetliner.
"Look, it's one of the great mysteries of our time," Australian
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in an interview with local Perth
radio station Radio 6iX.
"We owe it to the world, we owe it to those families to do whatever
we reasonably can do get to the bottom of this."
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to arrive in Perth
late on Wednesday to inspect the search and rescue operations, which
are being conducted out of RAAF Base Pearce north of the city. He
was expected to meet Abbott on Thursday.
Najib will arrive with Malaysia coming under fresh fire for its
handling of the incident after authorities there changed their
account of the plane's critical last communication.
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Malaysia on Tuesday released the full transcript of communications
between the Boeing 777 and local air traffic control before it
dropped from civilian radar in the early hours of March 8. (for full
transcript, click: http://r.reuters.com/kam28v)
While indicating nothing abnormal, the transcript showed the final
words from the cockpit were not the casual "All right, good night"
that authorities first reported, but the more standard "Good night
Malaysian three seven zero."
Minutes after the final radio transmission was received the plane's
communications were cut off and it turned back across Peninsular
Malaysia and headed towards the Indian Ocean, according to military
radar and limited satellite data.
Malaysian authorities have faced heavy criticism, particularly from
China, for mismanaging the search, now in its fourth fruitless week,
and holding back information. Most of the 239 people on board the
flight were Chinese.
IT WON'T BE EASY
Among the vessels due to join the search in the coming days is an
Australian defense force ship, the Ocean Shield, that has been
fitted with a sophisticated U.S. black box locator and an underwater
Using faint, hourly satellite signals gathered by British firm
Inmarsat PLC and radar data from early in its flight, investigators
have only estimates of the speed the aircraft was travelling and no
certainty of its altitude.
Still, Houston said the challenging search would continue based on
the imperfect information with which they had to work.
"It's vitally important for the governments involved that we find
this aeroplane," he said. "But I'm just pointing out that it won't
be easy given the circumstances that surround this particular search
and recovery operation."
(Additional reporting by Stuart Grudgings and Niluksi Koswanage in
Kuala Lumpar; editing by Alex Richardson)
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