PERTH, Australia (AP) — U.S. Navy equipment has picked up signals consistent with the pings from aircraft black boxes, an Australian search official said Monday, describing the discovery as “a most promising lead” in the month-long hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the search in the southern Indian Ocean, called it “very encouraging” but warned it may take days to confirm whether signals picked up by the ship Ocean Shield are indeed from the flight recorders on Flight 370.
“Clearly this is a most promising lead, and probably in the search so far, it’s the probably the best information that we have had,” Houston said at a news conference.
The Australian navy’s Ocean Shield, which is carrying high-tech sound detectors from the U.S. Navy, picked up two separate signals within a remote patch of the Indian Ocean far off the west Australian coast that search crews have been crisscrossing for weeks. The first signal lasted two hours and 20 minutes before it was lost. The ship then turned around and picked up a signal again — this time recording two distinct “pinger returns” that lasted 13 minutes, Houston said.
“Significantly, this would be consistent with transmissions from both the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder,” Houston said.
He said the position of the noise needs to be further refined, and then an underwater autonomous vehicle can be sent in to investigate.
“It could take some days before the information is available to establish whether these detections can be confirmed as being from MH370,” Houston said. “In very deep oceanic water, nothing happens fast.”
After a month-long hunt for answers filled with dead ends, Monday’s news brought fresh hope. The two black boxes, which contain flight data and cockpit voice recordings, are the key to unraveling exactly what happened to Flight 370 and why.
But there is little time left to find the devices, which contain critical flight data and cockpit voice recordings that could help investigators unravel exactly what happened on board Flight 370. The devices have beacons that emit “pings” so they can be more easily found, but the beacons’ batteries last only about a month. Tuesday marks exactly one month since the plane disappeared.
The plane vanished March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people on board, setting off an international search that started off Vietnam and then shifted to the southern Indian Ocean as information from radar and satellite data was refined.
The length of the search and lack of any information on the cause of the plane to go so far off course has transfixed the world.
If the Ocean Shield manages to pick up the signal again, the crew will launch a Bluefin-21 autonomous sub that can dive to about 4,500 meters (14,800 feet), and scan for wreckage. Given the fact that the sea floor in the area is approximately 4,500 meters — and even deeper in some spots — the sub will be operating to the limits of its capability, Houston said.
Houston cautioned that it was too early to say the transmissions were coming from the black boxes on the missing passenger jet.
“I would want more confirmation before we say this is it,” he said. “Without wreckage, we can’t say it’s definitely here. We’ve got to go down and have a look and hopefully we’ll find it somewhere in the area that we narrowed to.”
Meanwhile, officials were trying to determine whether two separate sounds heard by a Chinese ship about 555 kilometers (345 miles) away from the Ocean Shield were related to the plane. The patrol vessel Haixun 01 first detected a brief “pulse signal” on Friday at 37.5 kilohertz — the same frequency used by the airliner’s black boxes. The ship detected a second signal on Saturday within 2 kilometers (1.4 miles) of the original signal, this one lasting for 90 seconds. Houston said China also reported seeing floating white objects in the area.
The crew of the Chinese ship reportedly picked up the signals using a sonar device called a hydrophone dangled over the side of a small boat — something experts said was technically possible but extremely unlikely. The equipment aboard the British and Australian ships is dragged slowly behind each vessel over long distances and is considered far more sophisticated.
The first part of the opening statement from Monday’s press conference by retired Australian Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who is head of the joint agency coordinating the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 out of Perth, Australia:
“Well, good afternoon. Yesterday I outlined a number of leads we were pursuing in relation to the search, the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. Namely, the electronic pulse signals detected by the Chinese ship Haixun 01 and an acoustic noise being pursued by the Australian defense vessel Ocean Shield in her current location. I stated that the Ocean Shield would be delayed from going to the approximate area where the Haixun 01 had detected the signals while she continued her own investigations.
“Today I can report some very encouraging information which has unfolded over the last 24 hours. The towed pinger locator deployed from the Australian defense vessel Ocean Shield has detected signals consistent with those emitted by aircraft black boxes.
“Two separate signal detections have occurred within the northern part of the defined search area. The first detection was held for approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes. The ship then lost contact before conducting a turn and attempting to re-acquire the signal.
“The second detection on the return leg was held for approximately 13 minutes. On this occasion, two distinct pinger returns were audible. Significantly, this would be consistent with transmissions from both the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder.
“Clearly, this is a most promising lead. And probably in the search so far, it’s probably the best information that we have had.
“Again, I would ask all of you to treat this information cautiously and responsibly until such time as we can provide an unequivocal determination. We haven’t found the aircraft yet; we need the confirmation. And I really stress this; it’s very important.
“Ocean Shield remains in the immediate area and continues to try and regain contact with the towed pinger locator. To this point, it has not been able to re-acquire the signals.
“There are many steps yet before these detections can be positively verified as being from missing Flight MH370.
“Firstly, we need to fix the position. Then the Ocean Shield can lower the autonomous underwater vehicle ‘Bluefin 21′ into the water and attempt to locate wreckage on the sea floor. Another source of evidence such as wreckage would verify this lead. The area in which the signals have been received has a depth of approximately 4,500 meters (15,000 feet). This is also the limit of capability of the autonomous underwater vehicle.
“I need to be honest with you. It could take some days before the information is available to establish whether these detections can be confirmed as being from MH370.
“In very deep oceanic water, nothing happens fast. Of course, I will update you once we have an unequivocal determination.”