Updated: 03/28/2014 21:09 | By Agence France-Presse

MH370 search pivots north on new plane data

A multinational fleet of planes and ships raced Friday to a fresh search zone after a "credible new lead" that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was flying faster than first thought before it plunged into the remote Indian Ocean.


MH370 search pivots north on new plane data

A navigation screen used by pilots aboard a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft during a search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean - by Michael Martina

Ten aircraft from six countries -- Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States -- diverted to an area 1,100 kilometres (685 miles) northeast of where they have been looking for a week, far off western Australia. 

In a Twitter message late Friday, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said a New Zealand air force plane had spotted objects in the new search area but they were not expected to be reached by ship for confirmation until Saturday.

Five Chinese ships and an Australian naval vessel were steaming to the new zone after the weather cleared following the suspension of the air search Thursday due to thunderstorms and high winds.

Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the new search area, "although more focused than before, remains considerable; and the search conditions, although easier than before, remain challenging".

The revised search sector -- about the size of Norway -- was "based on continuing analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before radar contact was lost (with MH370)", AMSA said.

"It indicated that the aircraft was travelling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel usage and reducing the possible distance the aircraft travelled south into the Indian Ocean."

The new area is closer to land, meaning planes can spend more time searching before having to return to refuel, and enjoys better weather than seas further south where the search had been concentrated.

- Objects sighted in new area -

Satellite sightings of unidentified debris by several nations in recent days in the previous zone have raised hopes of finding wreckage from the Boeing 777, which vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board after veering sharply off course during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Nothing has yet been retrieved, however, as rough weather has plagued the search.

Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately redirected by someone on board and flown thousands of miles southwards, but nothing else is known.

"This is a credible new lead and will be thoroughly investigated today," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said of the revised search area.

Malaysian officials said the new zone was identified following an analysis of radar data by experts from Boeing who have joined an international investigation team in Kuala Lumpur.

They took MH370's estimated speed when it was briefly tracked by Malaysian military radar shortly after it diverted to the west -- the last time MH370 appeared on radar.

Boeing extrapolated forward to find an estimate of how far the plane would have flown on its known fuel reserves. Earlier satellite data analysis had indicated the plane was last detected in the Indian Ocean.

Malaysia's military has been criticised for not responding by intercepting or taking other steps to monitor the plane. The air force has said the radar image was ignored because it was not deemed "hostile".

The new search area is around 1,850 kilometres west of Perth. Australia is re-positioning its satellites to focus on it.

- Black box deadline -

As the search moves to the new area, the clock is ticking on the tracking signal emitted by the plane's "black box" of flight data, which last about 30 days.

The US Pacific Fleet has moved specialised black box locator equipment to Perth, poised to begin searching once an approximate crash site is established.

"It's critical to continue searching for debris so we can reverse-forecast the wind, current and sea state since March 8th to recreate the position where MH370 possibly went into the water," said Commander Tom Moneymaker, US 7th Fleet oceanographer.

Seeking closure, anguished families of those aboard are desperately awaiting solid evidence that might unlock one of aviation's greatest riddles.

Until then, many have refused to accept the Malaysian government's conclusion that the plane went down at sea. 

Two-thirds of the passengers were from China and relatives there have accused the Malaysian government and airline of a cover-up and of botching their response.

Underscoring simmering tensions, on Friday in Beijing hundreds of Chinese family members walked out of a briefing by Malaysian officials, who were left to stare at ranks of empty chairs while a relatives' representative berated them.

In a letter to Beijing's special envoy in Kuala Lumpur, families denounced Malaysia's handling of the search and asked the Chinese government to set up its own inquiry.

"We question Malaysia's motivations in misleading and delaying so as to miss the best moment to find MH370," the letter said, blasting Malaysia's behaviour as "irresponsible" and "inhumane".

A committee set up by relatives has also been in contact with US lawyers about a possible lawsuit against Malaysia Airlines.

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