MH370: Race on to find plane’s black boxes

Black boxes stop transmitting about 30 days after a crash. Picture: Contributed
Black boxes stop transmitting about 30 days after a crash. Picture: Contributed
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CREWS searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft yesterday launched a targeted hunt for its black boxes along a stretch of remote ocean, with just days left before the devices’ batteries will run out.

The Australian navy ship Ocean Shield – which is dragging a towed “pinger” locator from the US Navy – and the Royal Navy submarine HMS Echo converged along a 150-mile track in a desolate patch of the southern Indian Ocean, according to Angus Houston, head of a joint agency co-ordinating the search.

The plane’s data recorders emit a ping that can be detected by the equipment on board the ships. But the battery-powered devices stop transmitting the pings about 30 days after a crash, meaning searchers have little time left before the batteries on Flight MH370’s black boxes die out. Locating the data recorders and wreckage after that is possible, but incredibly difficult. Mr Houston acknowledged that the clock was ticking for search crews, who last night had again failed to source the boxes or any wreckage from the plane.

The area being searched was chosen based on satellite pings from the plane after it vanished from radar on 8 March on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board. Finding floating wreckage is key to narrowing the search area, as officials can then use data on ocean currents to try to backtrack to the spot where the
Boeing 777 entered the water – and where the data recorders may be.

Those devices would provide crucial information about what condition the plane was flying under and any communications or sounds in the cockpit.

And despite weeks of fruitless searching, Mr Houston said he hadn’t given up hope something would be found.

Fourteen planes and nine ships took part in yesterday’s hunt across a 84,000-square-mile expanse of ocean, about 1,100 miles north-west of Perth, the the agency overseeing the search said.

The search area has shifted each day as the investigative team continues to analyse what little radar and satellite data is available while factoring in where any debris may have drifted due to ocean currents and weather.

“I think we’ve probably got to the end of the process of analysis,” Mr Houston said. “And my expectation is that we’re into a situation where the data we’ve got is the data we’ve got and we’ll proceed on the basis of that.”

Mr Houston said it was unlikely any additional pinger locators would join the search any time soon as they are in scarce supply.

Although Australia is co-ordinating the ocean search, the investigation into the plane’s disappearance ultimately remains Malaysia’s responsibility, though Australia, the US, Britain and China have all agreed to be “accredited representatives” of the investigation.

Four Australian investigators were in Kuala Lumpur to help with the investigation and ensure that information on the aircraft’s likely flight path is fed back to search crews.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday met staff at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is running the search efforts, and acknowledged officials have no idea how long the hunt would continue.

He said: “A large aircraft seems like something that would be easy enough to locate – but a large aircraft that all but disappeared and disappeared into inaccessible oceans is an extraordinary, extraordinary challenge that you’re faced with.”

Malaysian premier Najib Razak, whose government has been harshly criticised by some victims’ families for giving sometimes conflicting information about the flight and for the slow pace of the investigation, vowed during a visit to Australia that no effort would be spared to give closure to the families of those on board.