(Reuters) — Aircraft and ships plowed through dire weather in search of objects floating in remote seas off Australia that Malaysia's government called a “credible lead” in the trans-continental hunt for a jetliner missing for nearly two weeks.
New Zealand's air force, whose P-3K2 Orion returned from a 2½-hour search mission in the Indian Ocean early on Friday, said it had found nothing that could have come from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 which disappeared on March 8.
“The crew never found any object of significance,” Kevin Short, air vice marshal at New Zealand's Defense Forces, told Radio New Zealand.
“Visibility wasn't very good, which makes it harder to search the surface of the water,” he said, adding that the plane had flown at around 1,000 feet over the sea.
The large objects which Australian officials said were spotted by satellite four days ago are the most promising find in days as searchers scour a vast area for the plane lost with 239 people on board.
A Norwegian merchant ship arrived in the area on Thursday, but officials cautioned it could take days to confirm if the objects were part of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777. Malaysia's government said the search would continue elsewhere despite the sighting in the southern Indian Ocean.
The area where the objects were spotted is around 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, roughly corresponding to the far end of a southern track that investigators calculated the aircraft could have taken after it was diverted.
“Yesterday I said that we wanted to reduce the area of the search. We now have a credible lead,” Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
A search for the plane that began in the tropical waters off Malaysia's east coast has now switched to the vast, icy southern oceans between Australia, southern Africa and Antarctica.
In addition to the New Zealand craft, two Royal Australia Air Force AP-3C Orions and a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon were involved in Thursday's search, which was called off late in the evening and will resume on Friday.
There have been many false leads and no confirmed wreckage found from Flight MH370 since it vanished from air traffic control screens off Malaysia's east coast early on March 8, less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.
Hishammuddin said the information on the objects received from Australia had been “corroborated to a certain extent” by other satellites, making it more credible than previous leads.
The larger of the objects measured up to 79 feet long and appeared to be floating in water several thousand feet deep, Australian officials said. The second object was about 16 feet long. Arrows on the images pointed to two indistinct objects apparently bobbing in the water.
“It's credible enough to divert the research to this area on the basis it provides a promising lead to what might be wreckage from the debris field,” Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore John McGarry said at a news conference in Canberra.
The satellite images, provided by U.S. company DigitalGlobe, were taken on March 16, meaning that the possible debris could by now have drifted far from the original site.
Australian officials said an aircraft had dropped a series of marker buoys in the area, which will provide information about currents to assist in calculating the latest location.
The captain of the first Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion plane to return from the search area described the weather conditions as “extremely bad” with rough seas and high winds.
Investigators believe that someone with detailed knowledge of both the Boeing 777-200ER and commercial aviation navigation switched off the plane's communications systems before diverting it thousands of miles off its scheduled course.
Exhaustive background checks of the passengers and crew aboard have yielded barely anything that might explain why.