New Delhi, March 23: Two Indian military aircraft today joined the multinational search in the southern Indian Ocean for the Malaysia Airlines plane missing since March 8 as new leads suggested that possible debris from the carrier could have spread across thousands of kilometres of open sea.
The maritime surveillance planes, which can cover between 2,200km and 3,400km before returning for refuelling, took off in the morning from southeastern Malaysia’s Subang airport for 10-hour sorties in the Indian Ocean northwest of Australia.
They will collaborate with Malaysian and Indonesian aircraft and ships to scour the Indian Ocean south of Malaysia, from just above the Equator to a little below the Tropic of Capricorn, Indian officials said.
This part of the ocean is the northern segment of an arc from the Malacca Strait curving southwest almost to Antarctica from where investigators increasingly believe the plane may have sent its last signal to a satellite hovering over the Indian Ocean.
“The work has been split — we’re taking care of the northern section of this arc, while the Australians, Americans and the Chinese focus on the lower half of the arc,” an official said.
The Indian planes — a P-8, manufactured by Boeing and belonging to the Indian Navy, and a C-130 J, made by Lockheed Martin and bought by the Indian Air Force — will join 23 other planes from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, China, Malaysia, South Korea, New Zealand and the UAE in the search over the southern Indian Ocean.
Malaysia requested India to join the search in the southern Indian Ocean amid growing evidence suggesting that if the missing MH370 crashed there on March 8, its debris by now could have spread across an area more than half the size of India, officials said.
On Sunday, France told Malaysia one of its satellites had spotted potential debris within the range wreckage could have floated in the 16 days since the plane vanished.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed that a search plane has spotted some debris, including a wooden pallet that aircraft and ships regularly carry.
But a second search plane did not corroborate the first plane’s sightings, the latest in a chain of potential leads that have so far ended in frustration.
“There’s only likely explanation — the objects seen by the first plane have floated somewhere else, pushed by a current, and the second plane did not see them in the poor weather conditions in that region,” a Malaysian official said from Kuala Lumpur.
With every hour, the possible debris could float even further apart, making the search harder and dependent on ever larger resources.
Already, officials are blaming the ocean currents for their failure to track down two earlier satellite leads — two images spotted by a satellite and announced by Abbott last week, and a third image picked up by a Chinese satellite close to the first two sightings.
The Indian P-8 aircraft can fly over 2200 km before it needs refuelling, and has on-board radar screens and search and rescue kits. The C-130 J does not have on-board radar screens, officials said, but can fly over 3300km at a stretch. Under their mission plan, they are to be based in Subang.