A rigid hull inflatable boat on its way to a reported sighting of potential debris during the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight in the southern Indian Ocean. (AFP)
Kuala Lumpur, April 7: An Australian naval ship searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane in the Indian Ocean has detected a series of underwater signals in the last two days “consistent with” those of a plane’s data and cockpit voice recorders, possibly from the missing jet, the lead coordinator of the multinational search said today.
“Clearly, this is a most promising lead,” the official, Angus Houston, said at a news conference in Perth, Australia. He called the signals “probably the best information that we have had” in the search, which in the past week and a half has focused on an area of the Indian Ocean roughly the size of Poland.
“I’m much more optimistic than I was a week ago,” he said.
Houston cautioned that determining the nature and source of the signals might take several days, and that officials were still far from confirming the location of the plane and solving the mystery of its disappearance.
A discovery of the Boeing 777-200 using sonic technology would be particularly extraordinary considering that the batteries in the recorders, commonly known as black boxes, are expected to expire as soon as this week. Once the batteries are dead, the boxes’ sonic beacons will cease to operate, making the discovery of undersea wreckage far more difficult.
Search forces began deploying the underwater listening technology only last Friday, in a last-ditch effort to hear the black boxes’ signals before they faded.
The two “signal detections,” as Houston called them, were picked up by Ocean Shield, a Royal Australian Navy vessel, using sensor technology operated by a team from the US Navy. They occurred late yesterday in the northern part of the current search zone, hundreds of miles off the west coast of Australia.
The first detection, which happened last evening, lasted about 2 hours 20 minutes, officials said. The ship lost contact, turned around, and picked up the signal again for about 13 minutes, officials said. On the return leg, sensors detected two separate pings coming from different locations, suggesting transmissions from both black boxes.
The announcement seemed to offer the best indication so far that after more than four weeks of fruitless searching across vast areas of sea and land in the Eastern Hemisphere, officials might finally be zeroing in on concrete evidence of the plane and its fate.
“I would now like to find some wreckage because that will help solve the mystery,” said Houston, who is coordinating the search in the Indian Ocean. “Fundamentally, without wreckage, we can’t say it is definitely here.”
The Malaysia Airlines plane disappeared on March 8 with 239 people on board after it veered off its scheduled route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and vanished from civilian and military radar. Based on analyses of satellite data, officials concluded that the flight ended somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.
Further data analysis has refined the search, and in the past week and a half ships and aircraft from several nations have been combing a broad swath of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia.
Despite these efforts, no confirmed debris from the jet has been found.
Cmdr William J. Marks, spokesman for the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, refused to answer questions about whether the US provided other, unpublicised information and guidance on the possible location where the plane went down.
Since it last detected the signal, on Sunday, Ocean Shield has continued to try to locate it again without success, Houston said. The vessel is outfitted with a so-called towed pinger locator, a batwing-shaped device that is towed behind the vessel, deep in the water, and can pick up signals from the black boxes’ beacons.
The batteries in the black boxes are expected to last at least 30 days but depending on various factors they can continue working even longer, experts said.
“If we did hear the pings from the black box, I think we’re very lucky,” Commander Marks said. “It of course could go longer than 30 days, but I think we take every day and are thankful for that.”
Ocean Shield will continue to use the locator to try to pinpoint the origin of the signals, a process that is very slow and could take several days, officials explained.