Australian ship Ocean Shield will join the hunt for the missing Malaysian jet after being fitted with equipment to detect black-box recorders, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott said there was no time limit on the search.
Ten aircraft and 10 ships from nations including China, Japan, the U.S., New Zealand, Malaysia and South Korea will help look for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) plane today, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement. Some parts of the search zone, off the coast of Western Australia, will experience low cloud and rain.
Time may be running out as the battery-powered beacons that help locate the black boxes on the Boeing Co 777-200ER last about 30 days. The latest lead in the search for the plane that disappeared on March 8 with 239 people on board was based on radar and performance data as it flew between the South China Sea and Malacca Strait, authorities said. The data showed Flight 370 moved faster, using more fuel, and may not have crashed as far south as estimated earlier.
“I’m certainly not putting a time limit” on the search, Abbott said at a media briefing at the Australian air force’s Base Pearce near Perth. “We are searching a vast area of ocean and we are working on quite limited information. If this mystery is solvable, we will solve it.”
Aircraft yesterday continued to report sightings of multiple items in a search area that covered about 252,000 square kilometers (97,300 square miles). Searchers said objects retrieved from the Indian Ocean so far were rubbish with no evidence of being related to the missing plane as the hunt for the jetliner is in its fourth week.
“Our primary focus at the moment is to use the aircraft to identify wreckage and have the ships move in and pick up the wreckage out of the water,” Commodore Peter Leavy, who is coordinating the Australian military’s search contribution, told reporters yesterday. “This is a critical step.”
The search zone is about 1,850 kilometers west of Perth in Western Australia. Investigators narrowed in on the area, 1,100 kilometers to the northeast of the previous zone. Ocean depth in the area ranges from 2,000 meters to 4,000 meters.
Ocean Shield was scheduled to depart today after being fitted with the black box detector and an autonomous underwater vehicle.
So-called black boxes in aircraft, which are actually bright orange, emit pings for 30 days after becoming immersed in water. While they’re designed to withstand depths of 20,000 feet and may work in even deeper water, the range of the pings is a mile, according to manuals from Honeywell International Inc., the maker of the equipment.
Recovery of the data and cockpit-voice recorders would help investigators decipher the plane’s movements and its pilots’ actions in the hours after contact was lost.
“If we don’t get a location on that pinger, we then have to very slowly use sonar to get an image, a digital image of the bottom of the ocean and that is incredibly, a long process to go through,” Commander William Marks, spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” television program yesterday.
Morale remains high for the crews looking for the plane, Abbott said. “They’re tired, sure, but this is what they’re trained for.”
The search for Flight 370, which was headed from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, had initially focused on the Gulf of Thailand before switching to the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea after radar data showed it had backtracked west across the Malaysian peninsula. The hunt was then extended thousands of miles after analysis of satellite signals suggested the plane continued flying for several hours in one of two possible arcs — south over the Indian Ocean or north over Asian landmass.
Further analysis of the data by Inmarsat Plc. (ISAT) showed the jet took the southern arc. Malaysian Air said the plane had crashed into the ocean and that there was no hope of survivors.
Malaysian Air will fly family members to Perth once it has been confirmed that any wreckage found belongs to Flight 370.
Examinations of the home flight simulator of the jet’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, haven’t found anything sinister, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said March 29. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Britain’s MI6 and Chinese intelligence agencies are helping with the investigation, he said.
Technicians from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation have almost finished extracting data from the pilot’s digital media, which include the hard drive from his flight simulator, and the bureau is almost halfway done in the analysis of that data, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the probe remains active. The official said no smoking gun has emerged thus far, though the FBI’s work won’t be complete for another few days or a week.