Bloomberg News

Jet Hunt to Get Black-Box Detector as Pingers Near Battery Limit

March 31, 2014

Australian Ship Ocean Shield

Workers assemble a Blue Fin 21 autonomous underwater vehicle which will be towed behind the Australian ship Ocean Shield during search operations for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at naval base HMAS Stirling on Garden Island, 60kms south of Perth on March 30, 2014. Source: AFP/Getty Images

Australian ship Ocean Shield will join the hunt for the missing Malaysian jet after being fitted with equipment to detect the crucial black-box recorders whose locator beacons are running out of power.

Ten aircraft and 10 vessels from nations including China and the U.S. were deployed to look for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) plane, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. A Chinese ship was sent to retrieve objects sighted by air yesterday, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in Kuala Lumpur.

Searchers are racing the clock because the pingers that emit signals to track the black boxes have enough battery life for only about 30 days, and Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew went missing March 8. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said there was no time limit on the effort even with the Ocean Shield not projected to reach the region until April 3.

“We are searching a vast area of ocean and we are working on quite limited information,” Abbott said at a media briefing at the Australian air force’s Base Pearce near Perth. “If this mystery is solvable, we will solve it.”

The last words exchanged between air traffic controllers and Flight 370 were “Good night Malaysian three seven zero,” the Malaysian government said today. Authorities are still trying to determine whether the final words from the cockpit were spoken by the pilot or co-pilot, the government said.

Last Exchange

Investigators had said previously that they believed the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, was the last speaker from the cockpit. The last exchange between ground handlers and the jet came at 1:19 a.m. local time, less than an hour after takeoff.

Searchers are scouring southern Indian Ocean waters about 2,060 kilometers (1,280 miles) west of Perth, according to a map from AMSA. The search area today was 254,000 square kilometers, according to Hishammuddin, who said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will visit Australia’s Base Pearce on April 2.

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.”

Search Shift

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.

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. (HON:US), the maker of the equipment.

Black Boxes

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.

“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.

Wandering Course

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 the 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.

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.

Hard Drive

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.”

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.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14@bloomberg.net; Shamim Adam in Singapore at sadam2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at anandk@bloomberg.net Frank Longid, Peter Hirschberg


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