CBS News – Four military search planes were dispatched Thursday to try to determine whether two large objects bobbing in a remote part of the Indian Ocean were part of a possible debris field from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.
One of the objects spotted in the satellite imagery was approximately 24 meters (79 feet) long, and another was thought to be about 5 meters (16.5 feet). There could be other objects in waters nearby in the area that’s a four-hour flight from Australia’s southwestern coast, said John Young, manager of Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division.
“This is a lead, it’s probably the best lead we have right now,” said Young, while cautioning that the objects could also be seaborne debris along a key shipping route where containers periodically fall off cargo vessels.
Young told a news conference in Canberra, Australia’s capital, that planes had been sent to the area about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth to check on the objects. He said that satellite images “do not always turn out to be related to the search even if they look good, so we will hold our views on that until they are sighted close-up.”
He said one of the planes had arrived and dropped marker buoys to begin tracking the drift of objects in the ocean currents in the area.
In all, four planes were sent — two Australian, one from New Zealand and one American — to try and find the two large objects spotted in satellite imagery bobbing in the ocean.
Australian authorities said the first plane to reach the area was unable to locate the debris through clouds and rain, but that other planes would continue the hunt.
Young said and Australian Navy vessel was en route to the area to try and collect the floating objects and determine conclusively whether they’re linked to the missing passenger plane. That ship was “days” away.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had earlier told Parliament about the debris.
Young said visibility was poor and may hamper efforts to find the objects. He said they “are relatively indistinct on the imagery … but those who are experts indicate they are credible sightings. The indication to me is of objects that are a reasonable size and probably awash with water, moving up and down over the surface.”
CBS News’ Bob Orr reported Thursday that the objects spotted on the satellite images were at the extreme southern end of the projected southern search corridor, so in an area where all earlier information suggested crews might expect to find the missing jet. He said it was conceivable that the largest object — nearly 80 feet in length — was one of the Boeing 777’s wings. As the flight would have been near the end of its fuel supply in reaching the area, the fuel tanks in the wings would be close to empty, giving the wings added buoyancy.
Military planes from Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand have been covering a search region over the southern Indian Ocean that was narrowed down from 232,000 square miles to 117,000 square miles.
The hunt for the Boeing 777 has been punctuated by several false leads since it disappeared March 8 above the Gulf of Thailand.
Oil slicks that were spotted did not contain jet fuel. A yellow object thought to be from the plane turned out to be a piece of sea trash. Chinese satellite images showed possible plane debris, but nothing was found.
But this is the first time that possible objects have been spotted since the search area was massively expanded into two corridors, one stretching from northern Thailand into Central Asia and the other from the Strait of Malacca down to southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.
Abbott said he spoke to the prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, about the latest developments. Australia’s envoy to Malaysia, Rod Smith, joined a meeting of senior Malaysia search officials at a Kuala Lumpur hotel after Abbott’s announcement. Smith did not respond to reporters’ questions.
“As I’ve been doing from day one, I’ve followed every single lead. And this time, I hope it is a positive development,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters
CBS News has confirmed the FBI has been provided electronic data to analyze from a flight simulator belonging to the pilot of the missing jet. It is expected the hard drive will be brought to an FBI lab in the United States. This FBI is lending technical expertise, not taking over the investigation.
Files containing records of flight simulations were deleted Feb. 3 from the device found in the home of the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu said.
It was not clear whether investigators thought that deleting the files was unusual. They might hold hints of unusual flight paths that could help explain where the missing plane went, or the files could have been deleted simply to clear memory for other material.
Hishammuddin told a news conference Wednesday that Zaharie is considered innocent until proven guilty. He said members of the pilot’s family are cooperating in the investigation.
Zaharie was known to some within the online world of flight simulation enthusiasts.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation by name, said the FBI has been asked to analyze the deleted simulator files.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington that the FBI was working with Malaysian authorities. He said U.S. investigators are prepared to help any way they can.. “At this point, I don’t think we have any theories,” he said.
President Obama says finding out what happened to the missing Malaysia Airlines plane is a top priority for the U.S.
“We have put every resource that we have available at the disposal of the search process,” Obama said in an interview with Dallas-Fort Worth television station KDFW. He said the nation’s thoughts and prayers were with the grieving families. Three Americans were aboard the flight.
Flight 370 disappeared March 8 on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation, but have said the evidence so far suggests the flight was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.
Investigators have identified two giant arcs of territory spanning the possible positions of the plane about 7-and-a-half hours after takeoff, based on its last faint signal to a satellite – an hourly “handshake” signal that continues even when communications are switched off. The arcs stretch up as far as Kazakhstan in central Asia and down deep into the southern Indian Ocean.
Police are considering the possibility of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board, and have asked for background checks from abroad on all foreign passengers.