Ship With Black Box Detector Joins Search For MH370 – UPDATE

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March 31, 2014

HMAS SUCCESS searches in the southern Indian Ocean for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. A lookout can be seen at centre of the photo scanning the ocean’s surface. Photo (c) Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

By Jason Scott and Shamim Adam

March 31 (Bloomberg) — 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, the U.S., Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia and South Korea were deployed to look for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement. A Chinese ship today was tasked to retrieve objects sighted by planes yesterday, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said.

Time may be running out in the search for the Boeing Co. 777-200ER, which disappeared on March 8 with 239 people on board, as the batteries powering the beacons of its black boxes last about 30 days. Ocean Shield, equipped with a pinger locator, was expected to reach the search zone April 3, Hishammuddin said at a briefing in Kuala Lumpur.

“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.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will visit Base Pearce on April 2, Hishammuddin said.

Primary Focus

The part of the southern Indian Ocean being scoured was about 2,060 kilometers (1,280 miles) west of Perth in Western Australia, according to a map from AMSA. The search area today was 254,000 square kilometers, Hishammuddin said.

Aircraft yesterday continued to report sightings of objects in the ocean. Searchers said items retrieved 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 area being searched for possible debris was shifted about 680 miles on March 28 after analysis of radar and performance data. It indicated Flight 370 traveled between the South China Sea and Malacca Strait faster than previously estimated, using more fuel, and may not have crashed as far south as estimated earlier.

Anticipatory Move

ADV Ocean Shield. Photo courtesy Hpeterswald/Creative Commons
ADV Ocean Shield. Photo courtesy Hpeterswald/Creative Commons

Ocean depth in the area being scoured ranges from 2,000 meters to 4,000 meters.

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.

The departure of Ocean Shield, which was also fitted with an autonomous underwater vehicle, is “an anticipatory move,” the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet said in an e-mailed statement. “Without confirmation of debris it will be virtually impossible to effectively employ the Towed Pinger Locator since the range on the black box pinger is only about a mile.”

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.

‘Long Process’

“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 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.”

A Joint Agency Coordination Centre, to operate out of Base Pearce, will coordinate between Australian government agencies and international search teams, Hishammuddin said. It will be headed by retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.

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.

Flight Simulator

Further analysis of the data by Inmarsat Plc 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.

Examinations of the home flight simulator of the jet’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, haven’t found anything sinister, Hishammuddin 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 completed for another few days or a week.

It’s unlikely a transcript of communications between Flight 370’s pilots and air traffic controllers will reveal “anything sinister,” Hishammuddin said. “Let me talk to the experts and investigators. If it can be revealed, it will be revealed.”

Passengers’ Relatives

Yesterday, a group of passengers’ relatives arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Beijing, and they will be briefed on the latest developments, Hishammuddin said.

Malaysian Air will fly family members to Perth once it has been confirmed that any wreckage found belongs to Flight 370.

“We find ourselves in a difficult position,” he said. “I repeat: the question that the families principally want answered, is the question we simply do not have the answer to — namely, where their loved ones are, and where is MH370.”

–With assistance from David Fickling, Edward Johnson, Chris Bourke, Michael Sin and Iain McDonald in Sydney, David Lerman, Del Quentin Wilber and Dan Hart in Washington, Kyunghee Park and Andrea Tan in Singapore, Tracy Withers in Wellington and Ranjeetha Pakiam in Kuala Lumpur.

Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.

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