Planes head home as MH370 search scaled back

Planes head home as MH370 search scaled back
Vice Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin (centre), shakes hands with members of the international and Australian air crews involved in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines plane MH370. On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the focus would shift to an expanded underwater search.

PERTH, Australia - The intensive aerial search for surface wreckage from Flight MH370 officially ended Wednesday as the hunt was drastically scaled back, with ships also moving out of the remote Indian Ocean area where the plane is believed to have gone down.

Australian authorities said the focus would move "over the coming weeks" to an intensified undersea search in the quest to find out what happened to the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

Eight nations have been involved in the unprecedented Indian Ocean hunt - Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Britain and China - with more than 300 sorties flown across a vast expanse of water in the search for debris.

But with nothing to show for their efforts to scan more than 4.5 million square kilometres (1.7 million square miles) from the air since March 18, the planes have been stood down.

"Most of the aircraft will have left by the end of today," a spokesman for the Australian-led Joint Agency Coordination Centre told AFP, although an Australian P-3 Orion would remain on standby in Perth.

The United States, Japan, New Zealand and Malaysia all confirmed that their aircraft were returning to base. There was no immediate word from China, which accounted for most of the passengers on board.

As many as 14 ships from Australia, China and Britain were involved in scanning the ocean surface for debris or black box signals but many of these are also pulling out.

"Some need to head back to port and refuel and give the crew a rest, others will go back to doing what they were doing for their respective nations before they joined the search," the spokesman said.

"In essence, the surface search has been scaled back. We will keep a few vessels out there and others on standby, but the large-scale air and sea search has ended."

Underwater search 'could take eight months'

On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the focus would shift to an expanded underwater search across a huge swathe of seabed where the plane might have crashed, admitting it was now "highly unlikely" that any surface wreckage would be found.

A US Navy submersible Bluefin-21 has been scouring a 314-square kilometre zone centred around one of the transmissions believed to have come from the plane's black box flight recorders before their batteries died.

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