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Associated Press

Churning seas impede search for missing jet

– Malaysia asked the United States to supply undersea surveillance equipment Friday to search for a missing Malaysia Airlines jet, as a forecast for lighter weekend winds promised to settle the roiled seas in the remote search area in the southern Indian Ocean.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein asked for the additional U.S. equipment in a telephone conversation with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The Pentagon did not say whether it would grant Hishammuddin's request, but a spokesman said the United States was committed to funding its share of the search for several more weeks.

"As of now, we've set aside $4 million to aid in the search," Army Col. Steve Warren said. "Based on our current expenditures, we expect these funds will last until sometime in the beginning of April."

If evidence of the missing plane is not found by then, there is doubt that it ever will be located. If it crashed into the ocean west of Australia, as officials believe, any debris floating on the surface a month after its March 8 disappearance could be hundreds of miles from where the plane went down.

Grainy satellite images captured Sunday and published Thursday by Australia showed two large objects bobbing in the ocean about 1,500 miles southwest of Perth. Officials called these images the most credible lead yet in the investigation. But there is no guarantee that the objects, around 80 and 15 feet long, have not sunk by now.

After being buffeted by high winds and rolling seas Thursday, searchers in aircraft and ships welcomed a forecast of lighter winds and a quieter ocean today. The prediction was for the wind to drop to about 7 mph and the waves to decline in size to about 8 feet. The forecast for Sunday turns sour again.

Already an international effort, the search drew additional resources Friday. China, which had 150 citizens among the 239 people aboard the Beijing-bound flight, said two of its aircraft would arrive today in Australia and that several Chinese ships were steaming toward the region. Japan said two of its planes would arrive Sunday.

Three Australian P-3 Orion surveillance planes and a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon were joined Friday by a long-range corporate jet with trained spotters at the windows, said John Young of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

The hunt for the missing airliner has focused on one of the most desolate corners of the planet, an area of ocean known as the Roaring Forties because its location near 40 degrees south latitude is frequently swept by huge swells and buffeted by strong winds.

The search is complicated because debris could have moved more than 100 nautical miles in strong ocean currents and unpredictable eddies since the satellite images were taken or even have sunk to the ocean floor at least 10,000 feet below the surface.

Time is critical, not just to find anyone who might have survived, but also because if the Boeing 777 did indeed crash in that area, its flight recorder will transmit a locating signal for only about two more weeks before its 30-day battery runs out.

A newly disclosed transcript of the conversation between the cockpit crew and air traffic controllers from the time the plane rolled onto the runway in Kuala Lumpur until the co-pilot's final "good night" more than 42 minutes later revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

The cockpit crew called or responded to controllers 14 times in that period, according to the transcript.

Even if debris is found and confirmed to be part of the missing Flight MH370, the search could enter a more difficult stage that could require years and tens of millions of dollars.

When winter weather sets in around May in the Southern Hemisphere, the seas will become significantly more inhospitable in the search area, said David Gallo, who helped lead the search for Air France Flight 447 in 2009 and is director of special projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Every piece of debris moves in a different way, adding another layer of complexity and uncertainty, he said.

"Some might stand higher in the water, like a sailboat that will be moved around by the wind," Gallo said.

"Others may be like icebergs, more underwater, and moved more by the currents," he said. "So they don't all end up in the same place. They scatter."