The U.S. Navy is pulling its P-8 Poseidon planes away from the hunt for the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean in March, a clear sign that the Pentagon is dramatically curtailing its role in the flagging effort to find the jetliner.
The planes were recalled from Perth, Australia, to Japan along with the USNS Cesar Chavez, a cargo ship that had been assisting in the search, Navy officials said. It comes as the search for the massive Boeing 777 jetliner moves almost exclusively underwater. The Navy's robotic submarine in the hunt, the Bluefin-21, has completed its initial sub-surface search of more than 154 square miles in the Indian Ocean where the plane is believed to have crashed far off the western coast of Australia, but could be used again. It will likely be among the last major U.S. commitments to the search. The Poseidons had conducted more than 45 aerial reconnaissance missions spanning 680,000 square miles, but failed to find a trace of the doomed plane.
"The decision to detach the P-8s was made in close coordination with the Governments of Australia and Malaysia in view of the diminishing possibility debris will be found on the surface of the water," said Capt. William Marks, a Navy spokesman, in an email to media sent early Tuesday.
The aircraft vanished with few traces after it diverted March 8 from its planned flight path from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing, China. All 227 passengers and 12 crew member on board are believed to be dead. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday that with few remaining leads to go on, the underwater hunt will be expanded to include more ocean floor, and could take eight months to thoroughly search.
"It is highly unlikely at this stage that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface. By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become waterlogged and sunk," Abbott said. "Therefore, we are moving from the current phase to a phase which is focused on searching the ocean floor over a much larger area."
Abbott did not specific what other equipment could join the search. The United States is believed to be the only nation capable of performing searches that far under the ocean, and has more 17-foot long Bluefin-21 submarines in its fleet. They are capable of descending more than 14,700 feet and scouring the ocean floor with high-tech sonar equipment and cameras. The U.S. Navy also has a broad and growing array of other underwater drones that could prove helpful if wreckage is spotted.
The Bluefin submarine sent to Australia to assist in the hunt for Flight 370 is operated by Phoenix International Holdings Inc., of Largo, Md., which collaborates with the Navy on many salvage operations. The company also owns a "black box locator" that is towed behind a vessel to listen for acoustic "pings" coming from beacons mounted on a downed aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. That technology was deployed earlier in the search for the plane, but is now considered useless because the battery life on the black box recorders typically runs out in about a month.
An Australian company known as GeoResonance claimed Monday that it had found materials "believed to be the wreckage of a commercial airliner" in the Bay of Bengal about 100 miles south of Bangladesh, citing its ability proprietary ability to search vast areas of the ocean for metals and minerals. That's some 1,000 miles away from the current concentration of the investigation. Search officials expressed skepticism, but said they would discuss the tip.
U.S. Navy photo