Off Australia, Searchers Find Possible Clues To Airliner Mystery

Mar 20, 2014
Originally published on March 21, 2014 4:20 pm



This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

As morning breaks over the Indian Ocean, crews are searching for objects in the water that could be debris from a missing Malaysian Airlines jet. Australian satellites spotted two objects: one that appears to be almost 80 feet long, the other about 15 feet long. They were located way out at sea in an area of the ocean about 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia.

We're going to hear about the search, and we'll hear from Beijing, where the families of passengers are still waiting for word of what happened to Flight 370. But first, to NPR's David Schaper. And, David, first, tell us more about this floating debris.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, as you said, Audie, it's two objects floating in the water that are quite sizeable and whitish in color. And it's the most promising development yet, according to Australian authorities. Here's Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who spoke about it at a news conference earlier today.

PRIME MINISTER TONY ABBOTT: We don't know what that satellite saw until we can get a much better, much closer look at it. But this is the first tangible breakthrough in what up till now has been an utterly baffling mystery.

SCHAPER: Australian rescue officials say four planes began searching for that debris yesterday. They're back in the air today, searching again, along with planes from the U.S., India and a couple of other countries that are lending help to this search again.

CORNISH: David, it's a huge area. I mean, how do they conduct such a search over such a wide stretch of ocean?

SCHAPER: Well, the satellite images show fairly well where these objects were, at least four days ago when the pictures were taken. The hard part is figuring out where those objects are now. So they need to determine which direction the winds are blowing and have been for the last couple of days, how the ocean currents are moving things. So they drop a buoy and measure the speed at which it moves. Then they will just calculate how far it could have moved and begin searching in the areas the wind currents and ocean currents are taking it.

And once they start searching, they'll drop another buoy in the search area as a point of reference and go in a back-and-forth pattern from the air to search the area that they believe these objects may have drifted off to. First, they'll use radar, which will work if the objects are floating and sticking out of the water a little bit. If the weather permits, they will search visually, too, from a lower altitude. But bad weather with a lot of wave action and poor visibility is apparently hampering the search efforts so far.

CORNISH: And so how will they determine if these objects are from the missing plane?

SCHAPER: Once the objects are located from high up in the air, a boat or a helicopter from a platform in a nearby ship will come in to take a closer look. And searchers will be looking for some structural characteristics of parts of the plane, but someone may actually have to get into the water to really determine what this is. And they'll be looking for airplane part serial numbers and the like to see if it is from the plane.

Crash expert Bill Waldock, who teaches how to investigate plane crashes at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, says that based on the descriptions of the size of these objects, one of them believed to be almost 80 feet in length, that raises some questions for him.

BILL WALDOCK: That's way too big to be a piece of that airplane. Most of the airplane's going to sink. But what it might be is a collection of smaller parts that are hung up in wires and some of the other materials, particularly from the aircraft cabin. We saw that in Air France 447 with the debris fields.

SCHAPER: So Waldock and others stress that it may take some time to actually locate these objects that were spotted in the satellite images, may take even longer to positively identify the objects. So everyone's urging patience in what has already been a long and gut-wrenching search for this missing plane.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Schaper. Dave, thanks so much.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.