Until debris is recovered and positively identified, any information about the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is speculation, Defence Minister David Johnston says.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, however, was more confident of the plane’s demise, announcing it had crashed into the Indian Ocean southwest of Western Australia, although there is still no more detail on how it got there after going missing on March 8.
“Its last position was in the middle of the India Ocean west of Perth,” Mr Najib told a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, based on new analysis by the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch and tracking company Inmarsat.
Inmarsat said satellite handshake “pings” from the missing jet were compared with other tracked commercial flights to determine it flew along the southern corridor from Kuala Lumpur and crashed into a remote part of the Indian Ocean.
Senator Johnston said while the British data was all the authorities had to go on, he stressed no debris had yet been recovered from the extensive search area.
“The turning point for us, I think, will be when we pull some piece of debris from the surface of the ocean and positively identify it as being part of the aircraft,” he told reporters in Perth on Tuesday.
“This is a mystery, and until we recover and positively identify a piece of debris, everything is virtually speculation.”
He said the search continued to be “fairly urgent” given there are only some 13 days of life left on the beacon battery that would pinpoint the location of the black box.
But poor weather caused the international effort to be suspended on Tuesday, and looks set to continue on Wednesday.
The RAAF’s Air Marshal Mark Binskin said the British data “seems to indicate more surety that it went down in the southern Indian Ocean”.
He said the search wasn’t just like looking for a needle in a haystack – “we’re still trying to define where the haystack is”.
A new Australian RAN asset, offshore support vessel Ocean Shield, along with several Chinese ships and Korean P3 Orions, will boost the search effort in coming days.
“The aim for her will be working with specialist equipment on board so that as we further refine the search area, that we might be able to go out and look for the black box,” Air Marshal Binskin said.
Buoys have been deployed to measure the current in the area and keep track of the debris field.
Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities and the national carrier have faced a storm of outrage after Mr Najib’s declaration, which was revealed to relatives of the plane’s 239 passengers and crew via text message.
Malaysia Airlines said it had tried to spread Mr Najib’s message with tact before the prime minister spoke.
“Wherever humanly possible, we did so in person with the families or by telephone,” airline chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.
Scores of Chinese relatives marched on Malaysia’s embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, shouting slogans including “The Malaysian government are murderers”.
And China’s government demanded authorities in Kuala Lumpur hand over the new satellite data.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the visa fees of bereaved families wishing to come to Australia would be waived.
MH370 last made contact over the South China Sea halfway between Malaysia and Vietnam. For reasons unknown, it backtracked over the Malaysian peninsula and then flew on for hours.
The search swung deep into the Indian Ocean last week after large floating objects were identified in initial satellite images.