Cluster of satellite sightings raises hopes in Flight 370 search

Michael Pearson, Jethro Mullen and Mitra Mobasherat


(CNN) — Japan and Thailand both said Thursday they’ve sent new satellite images to Malaysia showing separate debris fields that could be related to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The announcements come just a day after Malaysian officials announced a French satellite had found 122 pieces of something floating nearby, and days after similar findings in the same general area — all part of the search for Flight 370. The plane vanished March 8 with 239 people aboard.

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It’s enough to make you wonder: Have they found that proverbial haystack inside which they’ll find the well-hidden wreckage?

Maybe. Maybe not.

While analysts say it’s intriguing that the finds all appear to be in the same general area, searchers have yet to lay eyes on any of the objects, much less haul one aboard a ship and take a close look at it.

Stephen Wood, a former CIA analyst and satellite imagery expert, said the satellites could be seeing something as simple as whitecaps, which he said can look deceptively like solid objects.

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CNN aviation analyst Jeff Wise said that while the latest find is “very enticing,” the number and size of the objects make him question whether they could be from the plane.

“If you see something floating that’s 60 feet across, that could be a big chunk of fuselage,” he said. “But if you have 10 pieces that are 60 feet across, that would indicate that they’re not from the plane, because the plane has only so much stuff in it.”

But Miles O’Brien, another CNN aviation analyst, said what he sees on the latest satellite images doesn’t look like everyday garbage to him.

“What I see there is something that seems to be somewhat metallic and shiny. Looks like airplane wreckage to me. I also see some surfaces that look like they’re aerodynamic.”

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Concerns about weather, currents

It will be at least Friday before planes can try to find the materials and figure out what they are — rough weather in the remote spot is once again hindering search efforts.

By then, experts say, these objects could have drifted hundreds of miles in the complex currents of the Indian Ocean.

The Thai images show about 300 objects ranging in size from 6 feet (2 meters) to 50 feet (15 meters). When photographed Monday, they were about 125 miles (201 kilometers) away from the spot where a French satellite captured a floating group of objects Sunday.

The Japanese images were taken Wednesday and show about 10 objects floating in a 6-mile (10 kilometer) radius some 1,550 miles (2,500 kilometers) off the west coast of Australia, according to the Japanese Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office.

The biggest object was square in shape and measured some 13 feet by 26 feet (4 meters to 8 meters), the agency said.

The finds come after news Wednesday that a French satellite had seen 122 objects in the same region, and follows earlier sightings by U.S., Chinese and another French satellite.

Harsh conditions hinder search again

Australian officials leading the search had to suspend air missions before noon Thursday because of bad weather. Six ships helping in the search are continuing to work, but conditions are poor.

Air crews who went out Thursday were “beaten up” by the rough skies, said Lt. Cmdr. Adam Schantz of the U.S. Navy.

The visibility is almost zero, with clouds reaching down to the surface of the water, and there is severe turbulence and icing, he said.

Early Thursday afternoon, more than 60% of the search area was experiencing a mixture of low visibility, strong thunderstorms and powerful winds, said Pedram Javaheri, a CNN International meteorologist.

Capt. Allison Norris, commander of the Australian navy ship HMAS Success — which is helping look for debris — said conditions are cold and uncomfortable for searchers.

“We rotate the lookouts through every hour and make sure that they are appropriately dressed to combat the very cold conditions down here,” she said.

“The type of wreckage or object that we’re looking for is so close to the water line that now radars would not be able to pick it up,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “So we are very reliant on lookouts who use binoculars and night-vision glasses to scan the horizon and scan the area around the ship while we conduct our search pattern.”

Thursday’s delay is the second time this week that harsh conditions in the isolated patch of ocean have hampered operations. Search missions were called off Tuesday because of stormy weather.

The forecast from Friday morning through Saturday shows much improved conditions in the search zone, CNN’s Javaheri said.

“Scattered clouds should be expected,” he said. “But the winds and seas will both calm considerably, giving a rare stretch of generally favorable conditions for this region during this time of year.”

‘I understand him’

Meanwhile, the youngest son of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah has broken his family’s silence on the plane’s disappearance, rejecting speculation that the longtime aviator was somehow responsible.

“I’ve read everything online. But I’ve ignored all the speculation. I know my father better,” Ahmad Seth Zaharie, 26, said in an interview published Thursday by the New Straits Times, an English-language Malaysian newspaper.

The idea that Zaharie or co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid were responsible for the plane’s baffling disappearance is one of many theories investigators continue to pursue.

One line of speculation suggests Zaharie might have hijacked the plane as a political act. He has been identified as a supporter of a high-profile Malaysian opposition figure.

His son rejected such theories.

“We may not be as close, as he travels so much. But I understand him,” he said of his father in the interview, which was conducted Tuesday.

Comments from government officials on the investigation so far support the son’s view.

A senior Malaysian government official Wednesday told CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes that authorities have found nothing in 19 days of investigating the two pilots that leads them to any motive, be it political, suicidal or extremist.

And an ongoing FBI review of the two pilots’ hard drives, including one in a flight simulator Zaharie had built at his home, has not turned up a “smoking gun,” a U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation told CNN.

“They have accessed the data,” the official said. “There is nothing that’s jumping out and grabbing us right now.”

And investigators haven’t found anything suspicious with any of the other crew members or passengers, leaving them struggling to find an explanation.

“I don’t think there is a prevailing theory,” one U.S. official told CNN. “There are counterarguments to every theory right now.”

The confusion has left many family members of missing passengers and crew increasingly frustrated. Some have accused Malaysian authorities of failing to keep them properly informed. Others have accused officials of lying or covering up facts.

CNN’s Mitra Mobasherat reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong; and Michael Pearson wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Elizabeth Joseph, David Molko, Kyung Lah, Pamela Brown, Neda Farshbaf, Kevin Wang and Yoko Wakatsuki also contributed to this report.