Australian authorities say electronic signals reportedly detected by a Chinese ship involved in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane are consistent with an aircraft black box.
“I have been advised that a series of sounds have been detected by a Chinese ship in the search area. The characteristics reported are consistent with the aircraft black box,” Australian Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, head of the joint agency coordinating the operation, said in a statement.
Houston said earlier reports that the Chinese ship, Haixun 01, had detected pulse signals in the Indian Ocean related to MH370 could not be verified at this time.
“A number of white objects were also sighted on the surface about 90 kilometres from the detection area. However, there is no confirmation at this stage that the signals and the objects are related to the missing aircraft,” Houston said.
China’s official news agency earlier reported that a black box detector deployed by Haixun 91, picked up a signal at 37.5Hz per second Saturday at around 25 degrees south latitude and 101 degrees east longitude.
The report said it was not established whether that the signal was related to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
After weeks of fruitless looking, officials face the daunting prospect that sound-emitting beacons in the flight and voice recorders will soon fall silent as their batteries die after sounding electronic “pings” for a month.
Two ships — the Australian navy’s Ocean Shield and the British HMS Echo — carrying sophisticated equipment that can hear the recorders’ pings returned Saturday to an area investigators hope is close to where the plane went down. They concede the area they have identified is a best guess.
Officials have said the hunt for the wreckage is among the hardest ever undertaken, and will get much harder still if the beacons fall silent before they are found.
Up to 13 military and civilian planes and nine other ships took part in the search Saturday, the Australian agency coordinating the search said.
Because the U.S. Navy’s pinger locator can pick up signals to a depth of 20,000 feet, it should be able to hear the plane’s data recorders even if they are in the deepest part of the search zone — about 19,000 feet. But that’s only if the locator gets within range of the black boxes — a tough task, given the size of the search area and the fact that the pinger locator must be dragged slowly through the water at just 1 to 5 knots (1 to 6 mph).
Malaysia authorities on Saturday vowed that the country would not give up on trying to find the missing jetliner as the search entered its fifth week.
The Boeing 777 disappeared March 8 while en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people aboard.
Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defense minister and acting transport minister, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur that the cost of mounting the search was immaterial compared to providing solace for the families of those on board by establishing what happened.
“I can only speak for Malaysia, and Malaysia will not stop looking for MH370,” Hishammuddin said.
At the media briefing, Hishammuddin announced that an independent investigator would be appointed and three main areas of inquiry would be pursued. One team will look at airworthiness, including maintenance, structures and systems; another will examine operations, such as flight recorders and meteorology; and a third will consider medical and human factors.
The overall investigation team will include officials and experts from Australia — which as the nearest country to the search zone is currently heading the hunt, with other nations’ help — as well as China, the United States, Britain and France, Hishammuddin said.
A multinational team is desperately trying to find debris floating in the water or faint sound signals from the data recorders that could lead them to the missing plane and unravel the mystery of its fate.
Finding floating wreckage is key to narrowing the search area, as officials can then use data on currents to backtrack to where the plane hit the water, and where the flight recorders may be.
“Where we’re at right now, four weeks since this plane disappeared, we’re much, much closer,” said aviation expert Geoffrey Thomas, editor-in-chief of AirlineRatings.com. “But frustratingly, we’re still miles away from finding it. We need to find some piece of debris on the water; we need to pick up the ping.”
If it doesn’t happen, the only hope for finding the plane may be a full survey of the Indian Ocean floor, an operation that would take years and an enormous international operation.
Hishammuddin said there were no new satellite images or data that can provide new leads for searchers. The focus now is fully on the ocean search, he said.
Houston acknowledged the search area was essentially a best guess, and noted the time when the plane’s locator beacons would shut down was “getting pretty close.”
The overall search area is a 84,000-square-mile zone in the southern Indian Ocean, about 1,100 miles northwest of the western Australian city of Perth.