Authorities in Kuala Lumpur admit that two weeks after Malaysia Airlines MH370 vanished they are pursuing no strong leads and may never unlock one of the most baffling mysteries of modern aviation.
As scrutiny of all 239 people on board has failed to uncover any links to terrorism or extremist organisations, frustrated officials say they are preparing for the “long haul” to find the plane’s sensitive black box recorder that provides the only real hope of discovering what happened on board the ill-fated flight.
Even if two blurred objects photographed from space are confirmed to be debris from the plane, searches will still face a daunting task to find the recorder in volcanic ridge waters of the southern Indian Ocean as deep as 4,000 metres.
Radio beacons on the plane have a battery life of about 30 days, leaving only 16 days for the Australian-led search to find them before the signals die.
Malaysian officials concede the search is beyond Malaysia’s technical capabilities and expertise.
US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said Saturday the US it is considering a request from Malaysia to provide undersea surveillance equipment to help in the search as aircraft ships and helicopters from China and Japan head into the Indian Ocean.
Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s acting transport minister who is in charge of coordinating a 25-nation search from Central Asia to the far reaches of the Southern Ocean, admitted investigators do not have any leads into how the plane came to lose its communications and turn back from its scheduled flight path over the South China Sea on March 8.
Investigators have not ruled out any possibility for what happened but have said evidence so far points to a “deliberate action” onboard.
Another possible scenario under investigation is that a mechanical or electrical event, or a bomb, created a hole in the fuselage. As the plane depressurised and its communications system shut down, the pilots turned the plane around before becoming unconscious.
Under this scenario, the plane flew on for eight hours unpiloted.
In Kuala Lumpur officials are comparing the mystery over MH370 to the disappearance of an Air France airliner in the Atlantic in 2009. That plane’s recording devices were found in 3,900 metres of water after a two-year search.
But whereas investigators knew roughly where the Air France plane had hit the Atlantic on a stormy night, search crews know much less about where MH370 ended up, including whether or where it ran out of fuel.
The search area for the Air Fance plane was narrowed to 60-kilometre radius. Experts say currents in the rough seas of the Indian Ocean could have taken debris hundreds of kilometres since March 8.
“This is going to be a long-haul effort. I think we need to trench down on this,” Mr Hishammuddin said.
“Our focus has always been to narrow down the search corridors.''
Mr Hishammuddin, who is also defence minister, said he prays the plane will be found in 30 days before the battery life of the radar beacons die.
“We are discussing what we would need to carry on the search after that point,” he said.
“In the Air France search it took two years to find the [black box] so it is possible.”
The search operation will open the Australian defence force and China’s military to unprecedented real operation interaction as Beijing deploys five ships, three ship-borne helicopters and three Chinese aircraft to the Indian Ocean search area.
Japan is sending two P-3 Orion search aircraft to Perth to join the search while a British warship HMS Echo is also heading to the vast region.