Time, uncertainty make plane hunt uniquely hard

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Sgt. Matthew Falanga on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in southern Indian Ocean, Australia, Saturday, March 22, 2014. Frustration grew Saturday over the lack of progress tracking down two objects spotted by satellite that might be Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, with a Malaysian official expressing worry that the search area will have to be widened if no trace of the plane is found. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, Pool)

Sgt. Matthew Falanga on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in southern Indian Ocean, Australia, Saturday, March 22, 2014. Frustration grew Saturday over the lack of progress tracking down two objects spotted by satellite that might be Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, with a Malaysian official expressing worry that the search area will have to be widened if no trace of the plane is found. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, Pool)

Japanese Air Self-Defense Force’s Capt. Junichi Tanoue, left, co-pilot Ryutaro Hamahira, second from left, and engineer Noriyuki Yamanouchi, second from right, scan the ocean aboard a C130 aircraft while it flies over the southern search area in the southeastern Indian Ocean, 200 to 300 kilometers (124 to 186 miles) south of Sumatra, Indonesia, Friday, March 21, 2014. Search planes scoured a remote patch of the Indian Ocean but came back empty-handed Friday after looking for any sign of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, another disappointing day in one of the world’s biggest aviation mysteries. (AP Photo/Koji Ueda)

FILE – In this March 25, 2014 file photo, Australia’s Defense Minister David Johnston, center, speaks to the media about developments in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia. Not one object has been recovered from the missing airliner that Malaysian officials are now convinced plunged into the southern Indian Ocean 17 days ago. Australian Defense Minister Johnston said, “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.†(AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File)

FILE – This May 12, 2011 file photo shows one of the two flight recorders of the Air France flight 447, which crashed in 2009, in Le Bourget, near Paris. Geoff Dell, discipline leader of accident investigation at Central Queensland University, said if the black boxes of a missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 were several kilometers (miles) deep, ships might need to be almost directly over them before the signal could detect them. If found in deep water, Dell expected that unmanned submarines would be needed to retrieve them. That’s how the black box from Air France Flight 447 was retrieved in May 2011, almost two years after the Airbus A330 crashed with the loss of 228 lives. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

FILE – In this Monday, June 8, 2009 file photo released by Brazil’s Air Force, Brazil’s Navy sailors recover debris from the missing Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean. Geoff Dell, discipline leader of accident investigation at Central Queensland University, said if the black boxes of a missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 were several kilometers (miles) deep, ships might need to be almost directly over them before the signal could detect them. If found in deep water, Dell expected that unmanned submarines would be needed to retrieve them. That’s how the black box from Air France Flight 447 was retrieved in May 2011, almost two years after the Airbus A330 crashed with the loss of 228 lives. (AP Photo/Brazil’s Air Force, file) NO SALES

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Not one object has been recovered from the missing airliner that Malaysian officials are now convinced plunged into the southern Indian Ocean 17 days ago. Some of the pieces are likely 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) underwater. Others are bobbing in a fickle system of currents that one oceanographer compares to a pinball machine. And by now, they could easily be hundreds of kilometers (miles) away from each other.

The job of gathering this wreckage, and especially the black boxes that will help determine what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, is an unprecedented challenge. The crews who needed two years to find a black box from the Air France flight lost in the Atlantic in 2009 had much more information to go on.

“Even though that was the biggest and most complicated search for an aircraft in the ocean ever conducted, it was a relatively refined area compared with what we’re talking about here,” said U.S. underwater wreck hunter David Mearns, who advised both British and French investigators in the Air France case.

Malaysia said the latest search area had been narrowed to about 870,000 square kilometers (335,000 square miles, 470,000 square nautical miles), an area about as big as Texas and Oklahoma combined.

It was analysis of satellite data, rather than any confirmed wreckage, that led Malaysia to conclude Monday that Flight 370 plunged into the Indian Ocean 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of the Australian west coast city of Perth, and that all 239 people aboard died. Satellites and planes have seen objects in the water, large and small, but nothing has been retrieved or positively identified as coming from the Boeing 777-200.

Geoff Dell, discipline leader of accident investigation at Central Queensland University, said Tuesday that if the black boxes are found, it would be the most difficult search for a lost plane ever to succeed.

“We’re not searching for a needle in a haystack,” said Air Marshal Mark Binskin, Australia’s deputy defense chief. “We’re still trying to define where the haystack is.”

Dell said there’s an urgent need to find any wreckage from the plane. Even one piece would allow oceanographers to plot where it might have drifted from. That information, combined with the vague course of the plane calculated by British

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