By Matt Siegel and Michael Martina
PERTH (Reuters) – High winds and icy weather halted the air search on Thursday for a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet presumed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, just as new satellite images emerged showing what could be a large debris field from the plane.
The latest possible sightings of wreckage from Flight MH370, which went missing 19 days ago, were captured by Thai and Japanese satellites in roughly the same remote expanse of sea as earlier images reported by France, Australia and China.
“We detected floating objects, perhaps more than 300,” Anond Snidvongs, the head of Thailand’s space technology development agency, told Reuters. “We have never said that the pieces are part of MH370 but have so far identified them only as floating objects.”
A Japanese satellite also captured images of 10 objects which could be part of the plane, Kyodo news agency quoted the government as saying on Thursday.
An international search team of 11 military and civilian aircraft and five ships had been heading for an area where more than 100 objects that could be from the Boeing 777 had been identified by French satellite pictures earlier this week, but severe weather forced the planes to turn back.
“The forecast in the area was calling for severe icing, severe turbulence and near-zero visibility,” said Lieutenant Commander Adam Schantz, the officer in charge of the U.S. Navy Poseidon P8 maritime surveillance aircraft detachment.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the effort, confirmed flights had been called off but said ships continued to search despite battering waves.
“It’s the nature of search and rescue. It’s a fickle beast,” Flying Officer Peter Moore, the captain of an Australian AP-3C Orion, told Reuters aboard the plane after it turned around 600 miles from the search zone.
“This is incredibly important to us. The reality is we have 239 people whose families want some information and closure.”
The Malaysian airliner, on a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, is thought to have crashed with the loss of all 239 people aboard after flying thousands of miles off course.
The objects spotted by the Thai satellite were between 2 metres (6.5 ft) and 16 metres (52 ft) in size and were in an area around 2,700 km (1,680 miles) southwest of Perth, Snidvongs said.
The pictures were taken on Monday, a day after a satellite operated by France-based Airbus Defence & Space spotted 122 potential objects in a 400 sq km (155 sq mile) area of ocean around 2,500 km southwest of the Western Australian city.
The pictures by the Japanese satellite were taken on Wednesday of debris about 2,500 km (1,553 miles) southwest of Perth, the biggest measuring 4 by 8 metres, a government official said.
MH370 vanished from civilian radar screens less than an hour after take-off and investigators believe someone on board may have shut off the plane’s communications systems. Theories range from a hijacking to sabotage or a possible suicide by one of the pilots, but investigators have not ruled out technical problems.
Partial military radar tracking showed the plane turning west off its scheduled course over the South China Sea and then recrossing the Malay Peninsula, apparently under the control of a skilled pilot.
The logistical difficulties of the search have been highlighted by the failure so far to get a lock on possible debris, despite the now numerous satellite images and direct visual sightings from aircraft and ships.
The area being searched by crews from Australia, the United States, New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea has some of the deepest and roughest waters in the world.
One day had already been lost earlier this week because weather conditions were too dangerous, but Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said the forecast for Friday was better.
Recovery of wreckage could unlock clues about why and how the plane diverted so far off course in one of aviation’s most puzzling mysteries.
The United States has sent an undersea Navy drone and a high-tech black box detector which will be fitted to an Australian ship due in Perth in the coming days.
The so-called black boxes – the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder – record what happens during flight, but time is running out to pick up their locator beacons, which stop about a month after a crash due to limited battery life.
The prolonged and so far fruitless search and investigation have taken a toll, with dozens of distraught relatives of 150 Chinese passengers clashing with police and accusing Malaysia of “delays and deception”.
China has repeatedly voiced its frustration with the efforts of Malaysia to find the plane. China’s special envoy to Malaysia said on Thursday that Beijing was doing its best to push the Southeast Asian nation to coordinate the international search effort, state news agency Xinhua said.
Chinese insurance companies have started paying compensation to the families of passengers, Xinhua reported separately.
The family of Paul Weeks, a New Zealander on board the Malaysia Airlines flight, said they had been angered by the way the airline has dealt with the families of passengers.
“The whole situation has been handled appallingly, incredible insensitivity, lack of information,” Weeks’s sister, Sara Weeks, told Radio Live in New Zealand.
She said her brother’s wife had only received a text message to say that her husband was presumed dead.
(Additional reporting by Suilee Wee in Beijing, Niluksi Koswanage in Kuala Lumpur, Jane Wardell in Sydney, Gyles Beckford in Wellington, Stanley White in Tokyo and Amy Sawitta Lefevre in Bangkok; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Alex Richardson; Editing by Nick Macfie)