By Rob Griffith
and Scott McDonald
PERTH, AUSTRALIA: Rain was expected to hamper the hunt today for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, as a growing number of planes focus on an expanded area of the south Indian Ocean where French radar detected potential debris.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s rescue coordination center said the search area was expanded from 22,800 to 26,400 square miles today, including a new separate area covered by data provided by France on Sunday.
Two Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 planes joined the search from Perth, increasing the number of aircraft from eight on Sunday to 10, AMSA said.
It said the weather in the search area, about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth, was expected to deteriorate with rain likely.
Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss said “nothing of note” was found Sunday, which he described as a “fruitless day.”
“It’s going to be a challenge, but we’ll stick at it,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio before the first aircraft left Perth at dawn.
He said that the new search area based on French radar data was 530 miles north of the previous search zone. He said it was not the same area that had been identified as the most likely place where the aircraft may have entered the sea, “but … we’ve got to check out all the options.”
“We’re just, I guess, clutching at whatever little piece of information comes along to try and find a place where we might be able to concentrate the efforts,” he added.
A cyclone bearing down on the Australian northwest coast “could stir up less favorable weather,” he said.
Flight 370 vanished March 8 with 239 people aboard while en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, setting off a multinational search that has turned up no confirmed pieces and nothing conclusive on what happened to the jet.
The latest French satellite data came to light Sunday as Australian authorities coordinating the search sent planes and a ship to try to “re-find” a wooden pallet that appeared to be surrounded by straps of different lengths and colors.
The pallet was spotted Saturday from a search plane, but the spotters were unable to take photos of it, and a PC Orion military plane dispatched to locate it could not find it.
“So, we’ve gone back to that area again today to try and re-find it,” said Mike Barton, chief of the Australian rescue coordination center. “It’s a possible lead,” he added.
Wooden pallets are often used by ships, Barton cautioned. But he said airlines also commonly use them in cargo holds.
An official with Malaysia Airlines said Sunday night that the flight was, in fact, carrying wooden pallets. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with company policy.
AMSA said it has requested a cargo manifest from Malaysia Airlines.
When Brazilian searchers in 2009 were looking for debris from Air France Flight 447 after it mysteriously plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, they found a wooden pallet. The military initially reported the pallet came from the Air France flight, but backtracked hours later and said the plane had not been carrying any wooden pallets.
Sunday’s search was frustrating because “there was cloud down to the surface, and at times we were completely enclosed by cloud,” Royal Australian Air Force flight Lt. Russell Adams said.
Nothing of interest was found, he said. But he added that the search was worth it because “we might do 10 sorties and find nothing, but on that 11th flight when you find something and you know that you’re actually contributing to some answers for somebody.”