After seven weeks of an intense but fruitless search, the international air effort to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is over. Some ships will, however, stay on the Indian Ocean to gather any debris that might surface.
More than 600 military personnel from at least seven countries solemnly posed in front of their planes Tuesday for a commemorative photo. Some traded military patches and mulled over their disappointment in not finding the Boeing 777.
Most of the air crews will leave the Royal Australian Air Force Base Pearce, near Perth, over the next few days.
The likelihood of finding any debris on the ocean’s surface is “highly unlikely,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday. By now, most of the debris is probably waterlogged and has likely sunk, he said.
“I regret to say that thus far none of our efforts in the air, on the surface or under sea, have found any wreckage,” Abbott said.
So officials are moving on to the next phase: a more intense underwater search that will use private contractors and could cost about $56 million.
Crews will now scour a much larger area of the ocean floor — 60,000 square kilometers. The process could take at least six to eight months, officials said.
The Bluefin-21 underwater probe will continue scanning the ocean floor. But the submersible couldn’t search on Tuesday due to weather and very high seas.
No one knows exactly what happened to the MH 370, which disappeared March 8 with 239 on board. The plane was headed from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.
More details for relatives
Relatives of Chinese passengers have been furious over the perceived lack of information given by Malaysian authorities.
But on Tuesday, Malaysian officials briefed scores of family members in Beijing and played never-before released audio of the plane’s final chatter with a control tower.
“Malaysia three seven zero contact Ho Chi Min 120.9, good night,” says a voice identified by Malaysian officials as that of a radar controller in Kuala Lumpur.
“Good night Malaysian three seven zero,” answers a male voice believed to be a crew member on board.
Officials also showed family members maps of the flight’s route, including a questionable turn at Penang over the Strait of Malacca. That turn sent the plane veering far off course.
Malaysia Airlines representative Subas Chandran said the plane likely ran out of fuel about seven-and-a-half hours into the flight.
Such details, while sobering, were welcomed by relatives.
“They are making progress,” said Jimmy Wang, a member of the families’ committee aimed at seeking answers.