As an Australian-led search for a missing Malaysia Airlines passenger jet swings into action in the southern Indian Ocean, reports have emerged of a possible sighting of MH370 thousands of kilometres away in the Maldives.
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A search area the size of Australia is being scoured by 26 countries as authorities try to piece together why missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 changed course.
Residents on the island nation, in the Indian Ocean about 700 kilometres south-west of Sri Lanka, have reported seeing a ‘‘low-flying jumbo jet’’ on the morning that the missing plane with 239 people on board vanished from civilian radar and lost contact with ground controllers.
The large plane was reported to be white with red stripes, which is consistent with the Malaysia Airlines fleet, and was said to have made an incredibly loud noise as it flew over the the island of Kuda Huvadhoo at about 6.15am on March 8, according Maldives newspaper Haveeru Daily.
"I've never seen a jet flying so low over our island before,’’ one unnamed witness told the newspaper.
‘‘We've seen seaplanes, but I'm sure that this was not one of those. I could even make out the doors on the plane clearly... It's not just me either, several other residents have reported seeing the exact same thing. Some people got out of their houses to see what was causing the tremendous noise too."
Mohamed Zaheem, the island councillor of Kuda Huvadhoo, told the newspaper that other residents had also spoken of the incident.
The residents claimed the plane was flying towards the southern tip of the Maldives, the Addu Atoll.
The Maldives sighting appears to fit in with a theory proposed by an experienced pilot, Chris Goodfellow, whose blog earlier in the week has gained much online support.
Mr Goodfellow believes that the pilot on MH370 may have been heading to the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi for an emergency landing after the transponders were knocked out by a fire on board.
Mr Goodfellow said he believed the pilots were overcome by smoke and the plane continued on autopilot until it either ran out of fuel, or crashed.
"The reported sighting over the Maldives coincides with the time line well," Mr Goodfellow said in an updated post.
"The aircraft is probably a small distance west of Maldives.’’
Investigators have not commented on the reported sighting in the Maldives, which is thousands of kilometres away from where an Australian-led search has begun in a massive stretch of ocean west of Perth.
That search operation, covering an area the size of France, began on Tuesday afternoon when an Australian P-3 Orion surveillance plane set off from RAAF base Pearce, outside Perth.
Aircraft from the US and New Zealand will join the search on Wednesday, and China has expressed interest in helping.
On Wednesday morning, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said three merchant ships near the search area also had responded to a broadcast issued by AMSA’s rescue co-ordination centre.
The search area is more than 600,000 square kilometres, and the search is likely to take weeks.
John Young, from AMSA’s rescue co-ordination centre, said that search area was the ''best estimate'' of where the plane may have came down.
It is a considerably smaller area than the massive arc previously outlined by Malaysian authorities.
But Mr Young said it would still be a massive job, and repeated several times it was only a ''possible search area'', underscoring the uncertainty that still surrounds the whole episode.
''A needle in a haystack remains a good analogy,'' he said. ''The sheer size of the search area poses a huge challenge.''