The search for the missing Malaysian Airline’s black box involves a staggering array of sophisticated ships, aircraft and equipment, with eight countries contributing 17 vessels and 19 aircraft – including British nuclear submarine HMS Tireless.
And today, it looked like the scale of the operation had paid off, with reports that the flight recorder had been located deep in the Indian Ocean.
Perth radio station 6PR tweeted the discovery, citing aviation expert Geoffrey Thomas, who revealed the flight recorder had finally been found more than a month after the Boeing 777 went missing.
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is in China, said searchers are ‘very confident’ the signals detected were from the black box from MH370, which mysteriously vanished as it flew from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people on board on March 8.
‘We have very much narrowed down the search area [to the southern Indian Ocean]…and we are very confident the signals are from the black box from MH370,’ said Mr Abbott. ‘We have a series of detections, some lasting for quite a long period of time.
‘We’re now getting to the stage from where the black box is starting to fade. We’re hoping to get as much information as we can before the signal finally expires.
‘I really don’t want to give any more information than that at this stage…as a sign of respect to the Chinese people and their families.’.
Speaking from Shanghai, China, Mr Abbott added that today’s discovery was a huge step in solving the mystery – and even claimed that officials believe they can now pinpoint the position of the missing black box flight recorder to ‘within some kilometres’.
‘This is probably the most difficult search in human history,’ he said. ‘Among tragedy, however, there is hope. We are confident we know the position of the black box to the nearest kilometre.
‘But confidence in the position is not the same as recovering the wreckage from more than 4.5km beneath the sea and finally determining all that happened on that flight.’
The fact that Mr Abbott has reportedly used the word ‘confident’ suggests that searchers are finally convinced that weeks of scouring the Indian Ocean might now have resulted in the discovery of the missing Boeing 777.
The Prime Minister, who also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing today, said he will first need to brief the Chinese because most of the 239 passengers were from that country. Relatives have complained in the past of not being kept informed of progress in the search.
‘This will be a very long, slow and painstaking process,’ Mr Abbott told President Xi.
Mr Abbott’s announcement came after a fifth ping was detected around 1,500 miles north west of Perth, in western Australia. The signal was captured on Thursday by a Royal Australian Air Force Orion P-3 aircraft, which had been dropping sonar buoys into the water at the time.
The buoys each have a hydrophone listening device that dangles about 300 metres (1,000 feet) below the surface and their data are sent via radio back to a plane, Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Leavy said.
However, Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search for the plane,later said in a statement that an initial assessment had determined the signal was not related to an aircraft black box.
Even if it is discovered, the plane’s black box, or flight data and cockpit voice recorders, may hold the answers to why the Boeing 777 lost communications and veered so far off course when it vanished while flying to Beijing.
Search crews are racing against time because the batteries powering the devices’ locator beacons last only about a month – and more than a month has passed since the plane disappeared.
Finding the black boxes after the batteries fail will be extremely difficult because the water in the area is 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) deep.
The Australian ship Ocean Shield is towing a U.S. Navy device that detects black box signals, and two sounds it heard last Saturday were determined to be consistent with the signals emitted from aircraft flight recorders. Two more sounds were detected in the same general area on Tuesday – just days before the fifth ping was detected yesterday.
The Ocean Shield was still towing its pinger locator to try to find additional signals today, and the Orions were continuing their hunt, Mr Houston said.
The underwater search zone is currently a 1,300-square-kilometre(500-square-mile) patch of the ocean floor, about the size of the city of Los Angeles.
‘It is vital to glean as much information as possible while the batteries on the underwater locator beacons may still be active,’ Mr Houston said in a statement.
The searchers are trying to pinpoint the exact location of the source of the signals so they can send down a robotic submersible to look for wreckage. Mr Houston said today that a decision to send the sub could be ‘some days away’
The Bluefin 21 submersible takes six times longer to cover the same area as the pinger locator being towed by the Ocean Shield and would take six weeks to two months to canvass the current underwater search zone.
Complicating matters is the depth of the seabed in the search area. The signals are emanating from 4,500 metres(15,000 feet) below the surface, which is the deepest the Bluefin can dive. The search coordination center said it was considering options in case a deeper-diving sub is needed.
Meanwhile, the centre said the surface area to be searched for floating debris had been narrowed to 46,713 square kilometres(18,036 square miles) of ocean extending from 2,300 kilometres (1,400 miles) northwest of Perth.
Investigators believe the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean based on a flight path calculated from its contacts with a satellite and analysis of its speed and fuel capacity.
Separately, a Malaysian government official said yesterday that investigators have concluded the pilot spoke the last words to air traffic control, ‘Good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero,’ and that his voice had no signs of duress.
A re-examination of the last communication from the cockpit was initiated after authorities last week reversed their initial statement that the co-pilot was speaking different words.
The senior government official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s government has now begun to investigate civil aviation and military authorities to determine why opportunities to identify and track Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 were missed in the chaotic hours after it vanished, two officials said.
The preliminary internal enquiries come as tensions mount between civilian and military authorities over who bears most responsibility for the initial confusion and any mistakes that led to a week-long search in the wrong ocean.
‘What happened at that time is being investigated and I can’t say any more than that because it involves the military and the government,’ a senior government official told Reuters.
In an interview with Reuters last weekend, Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said internal enquiries were under way, although he declined to give details.
A government spokesman did not respond to Reuters questions over whether an investigation had been launched.
The senior government source said it was aimed at getting a detailed picture of the initial response. It was unclear which government department was in charge or whether a formal probe had been opened.
Malaysia’s opposition coalition has demanded a parliamentary inquiry into what happened on the ground in those first few hours. Government officials have said any formal inquiry should not begin until the flight’s black box recorders are found.