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Ship in Missing Jet Hunt Scours Seas for Objects Seen by Plane

March 24 (Bloomberg) -- An Australian naval ship in the hunt for the missing Malaysian jet is attempting to locate and retrieve objects spotted by planes in the southern Indian Ocean.

An Australian Air Force P3 Orion saw a gray or green circular object and an orange rectangular item, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement on its website. The HMAS Success “is on scene and is attempting to locate the objects,” AMSA said. A forecast for worsening weather threatened to hamper search efforts on their 17th day.

The items are separate from those reported by Chinese aircraft earlier today which a U.S. Navy plane later failed to locate, the authority said. The crew of a Chinese IL-76 plane reported sighting two “relatively big” floating objects, state-run Xinhua News Agency said.

“Time is really not on our side,” Lt. David Levy, a spokesman for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, said by phone from the USS Blue Ridge in the South China Sea. “But we’re going to keep going. That’s our mission.”

The objects spotted by the Australian plane were in an area about 2,500 kilometers southwest of Perth, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told lawmakers in Canberra. A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft as well as an Orion plane each from Australia and Japan are either in or headed for the search area, Abbott said.

Square Object

The objects could be received within next few hours, or by tomorrow morning at the latest, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a briefing in Kuala Lumpur today.

Chinese aircraft photographed a square floating object, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing today. The icebreaker Xuelong and three Chinese naval ships are due to arrive in the search area tomorrow or Wednesday, Hong said.

The Chinese asked for Australian aircraft to further scan the area around the coordinates of 95.1113 degrees east longitude and 42.5453 south latitude, Xinhua said. Many white smaller objects were scattered within a radius of several kilometers of the two objects, the agency said.

Nothing Conclusive

Police have interviewed more than 100 people, including families of both the pilot and the co-pilot, Hishammuddin said. A committee is considering releasing a copy of the transcript of the pilot’s conversations with the ground, he said. Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police will brief the press tomorrow.

“At the moment, there are new leads, but nothing conclusive,” Hishammuddin said.

Flight 370 was carrying wooden pallets, Hishammuddin said. The aircraft also carried 200 kilograms of lithium-ion batteries, radios and fruit as cargo.

The wooden pallet spotted 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, Mike Barton, an official with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Barton told reporters yesterday. The pallet appeared to show evidence of multicolored strapping belts, he said.

A New Zealand P3 Orion surveillance plane dispatched to the scene found only clumps of seaweed, and a merchant ship was diverted to the area.

Pinger Locator

The U.S. Navy, which has sent aircraft to help hunt for the Boeing Co. 777-200ER that vanished from radar on March 8 with 239 people on board, is sending a black-box locator that can be deployed when debris is located.

The Towed Pinger Locator System, pulled by a vessel traveling at speeds from one to five knots, can detect the black-box pinger to a depth of about 20,000 feet, Cmdr. Chris Budde, U.S. Seventh Fleet Operations Officer, said in an e- mailed statement.

“This movement is simply a prudent effort to preposition equipment and trained personnel closer to the search area,” Budde said. “The battery life of the black box’s pinger is limited.”

After French satellite scans earlier showed floating debris near the search area, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss tempered expectations when he said possible drifting objects were in a “completely different location” from where Chinese satellite imagery from March 18 detected a single large object.

Black Box

“This morning we have received a further set of images from French satellites, this time captured by cameras,” Hishammuddin said. “These images were taken yesterday.”

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority will make attempts to locate the objects sighted by the Chinese aircraft, according to an e-mail from AMSA. The objects are within today’s search area and the authority was advised about the sightings, it said.

The black box is supposed to emit pings for 30 days after becoming immersed in water. While the black boxes are designed to withstand depths of 20,000 feet and may work in even deeper water, the range of the pings is a mile, according to manuals from Honeywell International Inc., the maker of the equipment.

Searchers are focused about 2,500 kilometers southwest of Perth in remote ocean waters in pursuit of the jet flown by Malaysian Airline System Bhd. that vanished March 8 on a flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. Its intended path shouldn’t have gone anywhere near the southern Indian Ocean.

The ocean in the area is about 1 kilometer to 3 kilometers deep, AMSA said by e-mail.

Air France

Two locators and a third one attached to a faster-moving French nuclear submarine covered about 22,000 square kilometers in 31 days in their search for Air France flight 447, according to a 2009 report into the search operation.

The beacon wasn’t located during that hunt and the crashed Airbus Group NV A330 was only found two years later in an underwater sonar search.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese, spurring the government in Beijing to rush assets to help solve what has become the longest-running disappearance of an airliner in the modern era. The Chinese aircraft are Ilyushin Il-76 jets, a four-engine model that has seen service as a transport and military airborne command center.

Truss also warned of the advance of an Indian Ocean storm toward seas in the search zone already known for high swells.

Cyclone Gillian

“Today we expect the weather to deteriorate and of course the forecasts ahead are not all that good,” Truss said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio interview. The French sighting is about 850 kilometers (528 miles) north of investigators’ current focus “and is not in the area that’s been identified as the most likely place where the aircraft may have entered the sea.”

Severe Tropical Cyclone Gillian was moving south but wouldn’t have “any impact” on the area, Edward Boyles, a Perth-based forecaster with the Bureau of Meteorology, Australia’s government-funded weather agency, said in an interview.

He said rain was forecast for today and wouldn’t abate until tomorrow afternoon. “There will be moderate to fresh winds and lots of low clouds, which won’t be great conditions for the search,” Boyles said.

China’s aircraft were among the 10 flying off Australia’s west coast today in a zone covering 68,000 square kilometers (26,250 square miles), Truss said. Eight planes came up empty yesterday trying to locate a floating object spotted by a Chinese satellite.

Civilian Volunteers

Three civilian planes -- two Bombardier Inc. Global business jets and an unspecified Airbus Group NV aircraft -- are part of the task force today as well, with 20 volunteer civilian observers on board. Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., China and Japan are operating military aircraft in the search.

China’s satellite imagery depicted a floating object 22.5 meters (74 feet) long. Malaysia’s transport ministry disclosed the existence of French data yesterday showing “potential objects in the vicinity” of the surveillance zone, without giving any coordinates.

The Chinese picture, 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, according to China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. That put the object 120 kilometers southwest of the earlier sighting, the administration said.

Subsea Vehicle

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

The Royal Australian Navy’s Ocean Shield, equipped with a subsea remotely operated vehicle, was on its way to the zone. As was HMS Echo, a specialist ship from Britain’s Royal Navy that’s fitted with underwater listening gear and devices to survey the seabed.

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

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.

Northern Zone

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. The bulk of search efforts are focused on the south.

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.

Meanwhile, a Malaysian Air jet carrying 271 passengers to Incheon from Kuala Lumpur diverted to Hong Kong because of an inoperative generator, the carrier said in an e-mailed statement.

Hishammuddin said a home-computer flight simulator belonging to the jet’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, has produced no clear leads for investigators.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has received “digital media” from Malaysian authorities, including information from the simulator’s hard drive, according to a law enforcement official who asked not to be named because the probe is active. Michael Kortan, an FBI spokesman, declined to comment.

Through March 21, the U.S. spent $2.5 million on the hunt, according to Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman. The Pentagon has set aside $4 million, which includes the expense for sending two destroyers, helicopters and patrol aircraft, Warren told reporters in Washington.

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