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Flight 370 search shifts after new look at data

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- Three weeks into the mystery of Flight 370, investigators relying on newly analyzed satellite data shifted the search zone yet again, focusing on a swath of Indian Ocean where better conditions could help speed a hunt that is now concentrated thousands of miles from where it began.

Planes combing the newly targeted area off the west coast of Australia spotted several objects Friday, including two rectangular items that were blue and gray, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. Although those are part of the colors of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, it was not clear if they were from the plane.

The newly targeted zone is nearly 700 miles northeast of sites the searchers have crisscrossed for the past week. The redeployment came after analysts determined that the jet may have been traveling faster than earlier estimates and would therefore have run out of fuel sooner, officials said.

"This is a credible new lead and will be thoroughly investigated," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.

The Australian maritime agency will analyze photos of the objects seen in the area, and a Chinese patrol ship will try to locate them Saturday, officials said.

During the search, hundreds of objects have been seen in the water by satellites, but so far not a single one has been confirmed as being from missing Boeing 777.

The shift to the new zone, which is about 1,250 miles west of Perth, could be a break for searchers because it is a shorter flight from land and has much calmer weather than the remote stretch previously targeted.

"It is a different ballpark," said Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at New South Wales University. "Where they are searching now is more like a subtropical ocean. It is not nearly as bad as the southern Indian Ocean, which should make the search easier."

But in Malaysia, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein cautioned that while the conditions had improved, they remained challenging and the area "although more focused than before, remains considerable."

The new search area is about 80 percent smaller than the old one, but still spans about 123,000 square miles, (319,000 square kilometers), roughly the size of New Mexico (Poland). In most places, depths range from about 6,560 feet (2,000 meters) to 13,120 feet (4,000 meters), although the much deeper Diamantina trench edges the search area.

Flight 370 disappeared March 8 while bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The hunt focused first on the Gulf of Thailand, along the plane's planned path. But when radar data showed it had veered sharply west, the search moved to the Andaman Sea, off the western coast of Malaysia, before pivoting to the southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia.

That change was based on analysis of satellite data. But officials said a reexamination and refinement of that analysis indicated the aircraft was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel use and reducing the possible distance it could have flown before going down. 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.

Malaysia's civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said personnel at Boeing Co. in Seattle had helped with the analysis.

"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.

"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," he said. He said that information was coupled with various projections of aircraft performance and the plane's distance from the satellites at given times.

In Beijing, some relatives of the 153 Chinese passengers on the plane said the shift in the search area added to their confusion and frustration.

"What on earth is the Malaysian government doing?" said Wang Chunjiang, whose brother was a passenger. "Is there anything more that they are hiding from us?"

Jason Middleton, aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said it's tough to judge the decision to shift the search because Malaysia has not released any of the actual data underlying its analysis.

"People can interpret the same set of data in different ways, sometimes, depending on how they look at it and how they analyze it," Middleton said. "And that's part of the problem here - we're only being given the interpretation and not the actual data."

Investigators continued puzzling over what might have happened aboard the plane. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak amid an ongoing investigation, said the FBI's searches of computer hard drives belonging to pilot and co-pilot, including a flight simulator with deleted files, have yielded "no significant information" about what happened to the plane or what role, if any, the crew might have played in its disappearance.

A number of the objects seen Friday appeared white or light in color, AMSA said. But hundreds of items detected in the last week by satellites in the former search area, previously considered possible wreckage, "may or may not actually be objects," said John Young, manager of AMSA's emergency response division

"In regards to the old areas, we have not seen any debris and I would not wish to classify any of the satellite imagery as debris, nor would I want to classify any of the few visual sightings that we made as debris. That's just not justifiable from what we have seen," he said.

Hishammuddin said that because of ocean drifts, "this new search area could still be consistent with the potential objects identified by various satellite images over the past week."

If investigators can determine the plane went down in the newly targeted zone, recovery of its flight data and cockpit voice recorders could be complicated.

"There are a number of ridges, escarpments and fracture zones that run through this area, so it's a fairly complex area," said Rochelle Wigley, director of the Indian Ocean Mapping Project at the University of New Hampshire. She said determining the ocean floor topography within the search zone depends on its exact coordinates, but that investigators appear to be focusing on an area with a maximum depth of about 19,700 feet (6,000 meters) at its easternmost edge.

The U.S. Navy is sending equipment that can detect pings from the recorders, or "black boxes," up to about 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) deep, and an unmanned underwater vehicle that operates at depths up to 14,800 feet (4,500 meters).

Joseph Kolly, director of research and engineering at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said the flight data recorders have to be able withstand depths of up to 20,000 feet.

Australian officials said 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."

The new search zone's location about 435 miles (700 kilometers) closer to the Australian mainland makes it easier to reach. Planes used so much fuel getting to and from the previous zone that they were limited to only about two hours of search time.

The new area also has better weather conditions than the old one, where searches were regularly scrapped because of storms, high winds and low visibility.

"The search area has moved out of the `roaring 40s,' which creates very adverse weather," Young said, referring to the latitude of the previous search area. "I'm not sure that we'll get perfect weather out there, but it's likely to be better than we saw in the past."

The Australian navy's HMAS Success was expected in the area Saturday, Young said. The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration patrol boat Haixun 01 was also on site, and several more Chinese ships were en route.

"This is an extraordinarily difficult search and an agonizing wait for family and friends of the passengers and crew," the Australian prime minister said. "We owe it to them to follow every credible lead."

Join the discussion

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plewdawg March 29 2014 at 6:19 AM

Terrorists concocted a plan to take over several jets at once and crash them into sky scrapers. That was 9/11 and their test run was Egypt Flight 880 to see if they could do it. They have apparently concocted another plan and apparently it works as well. What the purpose of this is remains to be seen but there will be be a attack using this method.

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rpthe1 March 28 2014 at 7:21 PM

Some people may not have seen this. Could it explain everything?
The Federal Aviation Administration last week ordered additional, repeated inspections of certain Boeing 777 aircraft, warning that corrosion and cracking could lead to rapid decompression and damage to the structure of the aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration told airlines to inspect U.S. registered aircraft for cracking, corrosion and potential repairs after receiving a report about a 16-inch crack in the fuselage skin underneath an adapter for the airplane's satellite communications antenna.
"We are issuing this airworthiness directive to detect and correct cracking and corrosion in the fuselage skin, which could lead to rapid decompression and loss of structural integrity of the airplane," the agency said in the directive.
Boeing says Malaysia jet not subject to FAA inspection order

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1 reply
nrthendgirl rpthe1 March 28 2014 at 8:37 PM

Yes Boeing did issue a warning for possible corrision/danger of cracks at satellite antenna , but the MH 370 that vanished had no satillite antenna though it did clip another plane in its recent history and the wing was repaired.

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honeyrose3332 March 28 2014 at 7:30 PM

It may always be a mystery as to exactly what happened to flight 370 that morning it disappeared. Anything is possible. In this fast-paced computer age the world is in people want immediate answers, but that is not always forthcoming in cases like this plane, so people get anxious and start coming up with all sorts of theories. It could be some time before the world knows the answers to this perplexing mystery.

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hway395 March 28 2014 at 7:38 PM

Even though I've not subscribed to a conspiracy theory, I've wondered: Doesn't a plane, on autopilot, just go straight or would atmospheric conditions change it's course causing that north/south arc? A car goes straight when lifting hands from steering wheel. IF MH370 was spotted from Maldives what makes them think that flight did NOT just continue on a straight course to Somalia? Curiouser & curiouser. I've never heard a confirmation on fuel amount & it seems a full tank should make it that far whether by a hijacker or autopilot.

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1 reply
stephen284 hway395 March 28 2014 at 10:03 PM

The "Auto-Pilot" can be programmed to follow a prescribed course at specific altitudes. The newer jet, such as the 777, can literally fly themselves and do. Pilots normally handle the take-off and landing aspects, but allow the auto-pilot to fly the plane at altitude because it decreases their workload and responds to turbulance, differing air density's, altitude adjustments, and easily follows the programmed flight plan.

There are many variation of auto-pilot systems. Some are very basic, but all will keep a plane upright and flying in specific direction and hold the prescribed altitude. In a small single engine plane, like a Cessna 172, there is what is called "The poor mans auto-pilot." these are in reality a manual trim control that is set be the pilot to maintain a specific trim configuration. Most use it to simply stay at a specific flight altitude. In other words, I climb to 3000 feet and then manually set the trim to stay there. The airplane will then stay mostly straight and level, but be bounced around by air currents. An automatic auto-pilot will respond to these altitude changes and adjust the airplanes controls to maintain the specific programmed input.

All the commercial jets have electronic auto-pilots that will maintain level flight, follow a prescribed route (including turns, decents, climb, etc.). Some, but not all, will continue on the last programmed heading until something is done to change that. It could be a pilot input, or the plane could simply maintain the last heading until running out of fuel. The auto-pilot would still try to maintain flight, but would ultimately fail at that task.

Electricial Engineer and Private Pilot

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1 reply
hway395 stephen284 March 29 2014 at 12:53 PM

Thanx for the input stephen284. I'm old & a little slow & trying to apply so many others' conspiracy theories.

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jim March 29 2014 at 9:14 AM

Three weeks into investigation and chance of survivors is not good. Fear of the unknown is keeping this story afloat. The terrorist element, or that a nation could be flexing technology muscle. Eyes of the world will not close until truth revealed. I just hope we can handle the truth. Prayer for passengers and crew.

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Ghetto Cat March 29 2014 at 3:39 AM

If they turned the stuff off then they were probably headed for a terrorist target and they were blownup or shot down. The government probably does not want it released because of the passengers and a fear of starting another war. .02¢ !! Just ignore it. They do not want it to be news.

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Tammy March 28 2014 at 9:20 PM

Why isn't anyone talking about the two men with stolen passports? Is that not unusual?

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5 replies
Davie2743 March 28 2014 at 10:51 PM

Solving this mystery is no doubt important and that is why so many are intensely interested because, they need to eliminate a mechanical problem with the plane, or if a new page in terrorism has surfaced, all very important to the safety of air travel throughout the world.

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1 reply
Chris & Rose Davie2743 March 28 2014 at 11:39 PM

There was something bad on the plane, the pilots didnt want the plane to see land again and it didnt see land again. End of terrible bad story :(

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wudire235 March 28 2014 at 9:26 PM

Two Malaysian Airlines Flight # 88 &# 52 tried to contact Flight 370 on their return flight. All they heard was static. The Malaysian and the Vienanamese controllers ask the planes to contact 370. In my opinion why did not the Malaysian tower ask for military fighter jets support to clarify flight 370 's situation and mybe help guide 370 home. At least there would have been witnesses. Just a thought.

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3 replies
Ghetto Cat March 29 2014 at 5:02 AM

What a surprising climax to the 'Bates Motel' TV series.
The father of 'Norman Bates' is his own uncle. Ha ha... *Spoiler Alert

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