PERTH: Thunderstorms and gale-force winds grounded the international air search for wreckage from Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on Thursday, frustrating the luckless effort yet again just as new satellite images of floating objects sparked hopes of a breakthrough.
It marked the second suspension within three days for the planes from several nations that, along with ships, have fought a losing battle against fierce winds and mountainous seas in the remote southern Indian Ocean as they hunt for hard evidence that the plane crashed.
“Today’s search operations have been suspended due to bad weather,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is coordinating the search, said on its Twitter account.
The agency initially said ships were leaving the search area along with the planes, but later announced the ships would stay and try to continue the search.
“Bad weather expected for next 24 hours,” it said.
Malaysia said on Wednesday that images taken in recent days by a French satellite showed “122 potential objects” adrift in the vast area, but nothing has been recovered yet that would confirm the plane’s fate.
The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 is presumed to have crashed on March 8 in the Indian Ocean with 239 people aboard after mysteriously diverting from its Kuala Lumpur-Beijing path and apparently flying for hours in the opposite direction.
Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately re-directed by someone on board, but nothing else is known.
AMSA had said earlier the new satellite images were in an area authorities have pinpointed as a potential crash zone some 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth.
Six military planes from Australia, China, Japan and the United States had been set to fly sorties throughout Thursday, along with five civil aircraft, scouring two areas covering a cumulative 78,000 square kilometers.
Five ships from Australia and China also were set to resume searching the zone.
Clock ticks on black box
The search was also suspended on Tuesday because of bad weather, causing mounting concern as the clock ticks on the signal emitted by the plane’s “black box” of flight data.
The data is considered vital to unraveling the flight’s mystery but the signal, aimed at guiding searchers to the device on the seabed where it hopefully can be recovered, will expire in under two weeks.
The drama is playing out in a wild expanse of ocean described by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as “about as close to nowhere as it’s possible to be,” and known for gale-force winds and towering waves.
The new satellite images provided by European aerospace giant Airbus depicted some objects as long as 23 meters (75 feet), Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said.
Seeking closure, anguished families of those aboard are desperately awaiting hard evidence, which the aviation industry hopes can also provide clues to what caused one of aviation’s greatest mysteries.
MH370 relatives have endured more than a fortnight of agonizing uncertainty.
Two-thirds of the passengers were from China, and relatives there have criticized Malaysia in acid terms, accusing the government and airline of a cover-up and botching the response.
The sister of New Zealand victim Paul Weeks lashed out Thursday.
“The whole situation has been handled appallingly, incredibly insensitively,” Sara Weeks told Radio Live in New Zealand.
“The Malaysian government, the airline, it’s just all been incredibly poor,” she added.
Scores of Chinese relatives protested outside Malaysia’s embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, and a day later Premier Li Keqiang urged Malaysia to involve “more Chinese experts” in the investigation.
While Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted, other scenarios include a hijacking, pilot sabotage or a crisis that incapacitated the crew and left the plane to fly on autopilot until it ran out of fuel.
Focus has also been on the pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Wednesday saying it was close to completing an analysis of data from a flight simulator taken from his home.
Malaysian authorities had sought FBI help to recover files deleted from the hard drive.
So far, no information implicating the captain or anyone else has emerged.