By ROB GRIFFITH and SCOTT McDONALD
Air search operations for possible debris from the downed Malaysia Airlines plane were suspended Thursday due to bad weather that's expected to last for 24 hours, Australian officials said, after the latest satellite images revealed 122 objects floating in the turbulent Indian Ocean.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said all planes that headed for the search area in the southern Indian Ocean earlier Thursday were returning to Perth. It said the area about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth was hit by heavy rains and strong winds that brought low clouds and reduced visibility, but added ships would stay to try to continue the hunt.
AMSA spokesman Sam Cardwell said all but three of the 11 search planes — a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon, a Japanese P-3 Orion and a Japanese Gulfstream jet — reached the zone before the search was suspended.
They were there "maybe two hours," said Cardwell, and they did not find anything.
"They got a bit of time in, but it was not useful because there was no visibility," he said.
In a message on its Twitter account, AMSA said the bad weather was expected for 24 hours.
Planes have been flying out of Perth for a week, looking without any success for objects spotted in vague satellite images, the latest of which showed 122 objects floating in the ocean.
Finding them would give physical confirmation that the flight, Flight 370, which vanished early March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard, had crashed, and allow searchers to narrow the hunt for the wreckage of the plane and its black boxes, which could solve the mystery of why the plane was so far off-course.
Malaysian officials said earlier this week that satellite data confirmed the plane crashed while on a course toward the southern Indian Ocean. Malaysia Airlines on Thursday ran a full-page condolence advertisement with a black background in a major newspaper.
"Our sincerest condolences go out to the loved ones of the 239 passengers, friends and colleagues. Words alone cannot express our enormous sorrow and pain," read the advertisement in the New Straits Times.
The 122 objects captured by a French satellite ranged in size from 1 meter (3 feet) to 23 meters (75 feet). The sighting was called "the most credible lead that we have" by a top Malaysian official on Wednesday, but the search will now have to wait until the weather improves, echoing the frustration of earlier sweeps that failed to zero in on three objects spotted by satellites in recent days.
The latest satellite images, captured Sunday and relayed by French-based Airbus Defense and Space, are the first to suggest a debris field from the plane, rather than just isolated objects. The items were spotted in roughly the same area as other objects previously seen by Australian and Chinese satellites.
At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Hishammuddin said some of them "appeared to be bright, possibly indicating solid materials."
But experts cautioned that the area's frequent high seas and bad weather and its distance from land complicated an already-trying search.
"This is a really rough piece of ocean, which is going to be a terrific issue," said Kerry Sieh, director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore. "I worry that people carrying out the rescue mission are going to get into trouble."
Malaysia has been criticized over its handling of one of the most perplexing mysteries in aviation history. Much of the most strident criticism has come from relatives of the Chinese passengers, some of whom expressed outrage that Malaysia essentially declared their loved ones dead without recovering a single piece of wreckage.
Meanwhile, a U.S.-based law firm filed court documents that often precede a lawsuit on behalf of a relative of an Indonesian-born passenger. The filing in Chicago asked a judge to order Malaysia Airlines and Chicago-based Boeing Co. to turn over documents related to the possibility that "negligence" caused the Boeing 777 to crash, including any documentation about the chances of "fatal depressurization" in the cockpit.
Though officials say Flight 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean, they don't know why it disappeared shortly after takeoff. Investigators have ruled out nothing — including mechanical or electrical failure, hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or someone else on board.
On Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey told members of Congress that his investigators should finish in a day or two their analysis of electronics owned by the pilot and co-pilot, work that includes trying to recover files deleted from a home flight simulator used by Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
And finding the wreckage and the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders is a major challenge. It took two years to find the black box from Air France Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009, and searchers knew within days where that crash site was.
The batteries on the recorders' "pingers" are designed to last 30 days. After that, the pings begin to fade in the same way that a flashlight with failing batteries begins to dim, said Chuck Schofield of Dukane Seacom Inc., a company that has provided Malaysia Airlines with pingers in the past. Schofield said the fading pings might last five days before the battery dies.
Once a general area is pinpointed for the wreckage, experts say salvagers will have to deal with depths ranging from 3,000 to 4,500 meters (10,000 to 15,000 feet).