PERTH, Australia – A warship with an aircraft black box detector was set to depart Australia on Sunday to join the search for the missing Malaysian jetliner, a day after ships plucked objects from the Indian Ocean to determine whether they were related to the missing plane. None were confirmed to be from the plane, leaving searchers with no sign of the jet more than three weeks after it disappeared.
Twenty-nine Chinese family members, seeking answers from Malaysia’s government as to what happened to their loved ones, arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, said Malaysia Airlines commercial director Hugh Dunleavy. Two-thirds of the 227 passengers aboard Flight 370 were Chinese, and their relatives have expressed deep frustration with Malaysian authorities since the plane went missing.
It will still take three-to-four days for the Australian navy ship, the Ocean Shield, to reach the search zone – an area roughly the size of Poland about 1,850 kilometers (1,150 miles) to the west of Australia.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which oversees the search, said the ship will be equipped with a black box detector – the U.S. Navy’s Towed Pinger Locator – and an unmanned underwater vehicle, as well as other acoustic detection equipment.
Ships from China and Australia on Saturday scooped up items described only as “objects from the ocean,” but none were “confirmed to be related” to Flight 370, AMSA said.
In Sydney, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott described the latest search as positive because objects are now being examined.
“We haven’t yet been able to ascertain what those objects are, but nevertheless, for the first time yesterday objects have been recovered from the ocean,” he said.
A Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 plane spotted three floating objects, including two bearing colors of the missing jet, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said, a day after several planes and ships combing the newly targeted area, which is closer to Australia than a previous search zone, saw several other objects.
The three objects spotted by the Chinese plane were white, red and orange, the Xinhua report said. The missing Boeing 777’s exterior was red, white, blue and gray.
Investigators have been puzzled over what happened to Flight 370, which disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, with speculation ranging from equipment failure and a botched hijacking to terrorism or an act by one of the pilots.
The latter was fueled by reports that the pilot’s home flight simulator had files deleted from it, but Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said checks, including one by the FBI, had turned up no new information.
“What I know is that there is nothing sinister from the simulators, but of course that will have to be confirmed by the chief of police,” Hussein said.
Abbott also announced that former Australian defense chief, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, will lead a new center in Perth to coordinate the international search effort.
The Joint Agency Coordination Center will work with key Australian government, state and international members, and provide a single contact point for families, including travel assistance and visa services, accommodation, interpreter services and counselling.
Newly analyzed satellite data shifted the search zone on Friday, raising expectations that searchers may be closer to getting physical evidence that the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean.
That would narrow the hunt for the wreckage and the plane’s black boxes, which should contain clues to what caused the plane to be so far off-course.
The change came after analysts determined that the Boeing 777 may have been traveling faster than earlier estimates and would therefore have run out of fuel sooner.
The new search area is closer to Perth than the previous one, with a flying time of 2 1/2 hours each way, allowing for five hours of search.
AMSA said 10 planes will join the search Sunday. The first aircraft to leave the Perth air force base, a Chinese Ilyushin IL-76, was already over the area.
The Australian navy supply ship HMAS Success, which is to store any wreckage found, and three Chinese ships reached the search area Saturday. Six more ships will arrive Sunday, AMSA said.
The ships are trying to locate and identify the objects sighted by aircraft over the past two days.
There were light showers and low cloud in the area, but not enough to disrupt the search, AMSA said.
Dunleavy, the Malaysia Airlines’ director, said in Beijing the Chinese relatives flew to Kuala Lumpur on Sunday morning.
Steve Wang, a representative of some of the Chinese families in Beijing, said the relatives are demanding more answers because they were not satisfied by the responses Malaysian government representatives gave them in China.
“We have demanded that we meet with the prime minister and the transportation minister,” said Wang Chunjiang, whose younger brother, Wang Chunyong, was on Flight 370. “We have questions that we would like to ask them in person.”
If investigators can determine that the plane went down in the newly targeted search zone, recovery of its flight data and cockpit voice recorders could be complicated.
Much of the sea floor in the area is about 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) below the surface, but depths may reach up to 6,000 meters (19,685 feet).
Wong reported from Kuala Lumpur. Associated Press writers Scott McDonald and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur; Kristen Gelineau in Sydney; Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia; Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; and Aritz Parra and Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.