A CHINESE patrol ship hunting for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has detected a pulse signal in the southern Indian Ocean, which could be coming from the underwater beacon of the plane’s black box recorder.
A detector deployed by the Haixun 01 picked up the “ping” signal at around 25 degrees south latitude and 101 degrees east longitude, China’s Xinhua news agency reported.
It has not been established whether the signal is related to the plane, which went missing on 8 March on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
John Goglia, a former United States National Transportation Safety Board member, cautioned that “there is an awful lot of noise in the ocean”.
“One ship, one ping doesn’t make a success story,” he said. “It will have to be explored. I guarantee you there are other resources being moved into the area to see if it can be verified.”
The development came as search teams scouring the Indian Ocean for the missing plane stepped up their hunt for the black box recorder as time runs out before its batteries expire.
Aircraft, ships and an advanced Royal Navy submarine – the Trafalgar-class HMS Tireless – were among the vessels criss-crossing an area of sea in the hope of locating the homing device that they believe will reveal the fate of the Boeing 777.
Efforts will continue “with the same level of vigour and intensity” despite the passage of time and the knowledge that the airliner’s occupants are lost, Malaysia’s defence minister said yesterday nearly a month after it disappeared.
Hishammuddin Hussein pledged: “We will continue to focus, with all our efforts, on finding the aircraft.”
He said there are no more new satellite images or data that can provide new leads, and the focus is now fully on the ocean search.
A multinational team is desperately trying to find debris floating in the water or faint sound signals from the recorders that could lead them to the aircraft.
But officials say the more time that passes before any floating wreckage is found, the harder it will be to find the plane itself.
Beacons in the black boxes emit “pings” so they can be more easily found, but the batteries only last about a month.
Two ships with sophisticated equipment that can hear the recorders’ pings were deployed for the first time on Friday along a 150-mile route which investigators hope may be close to the spot where they believe the plane went down.
Those ships, the British hydrographic survey ship HMS Echo and the Australian navy’s Ocean Shield, were in the search area this weekend, along with up to 13 military and civilian planes and nine other ships.
Weather conditions, which have regularly hampered the search, were fair with some rain expected, the Joint Agency Co-ordination Centre in Australia said.
Because the US navy’s pinger locator can pick up signals to a depth of 20,000ft (6,096m), it should be able to hear the plane’s data recorders even if they are in the deepest part of the search zone – about 19,000ft (5,791m).
But that is only if the pinger locator gets within range of the black boxes – a tough task, given the size of the search area and the fact that the locator must be dragged slowly through the water at just one to five knots.
Officials said there was no specific information that led to the underwater devices being used for the first time, but that they were brought into the effort because there was nothing to lose.
Retired Australian air chief marshal Angus Houston, head of the Joint Agency Co-ordination Centre, acknowledged the search area was essentially a best guess, and noted the time when the plane’s locator beacons would shut down was “getting pretty close”.
Finding floating wreckage is the key to narrowing the search area, as officials can then use data on currents to try to backtrack to where the aircraft hit the water, and where the flight recorders may be.
The overall search area is an 84,000-square-mile (217,559 sq km) zone in the southern Indian Ocean, about 1,100 miles (1,770km) north-west of the western Australian city of Perth.
The search area has shifted each day as investigators continue to analyse what little radar and satellite data is available while factoring in where any debris may have drifted.
Australia is co-ordinating the ocean search, while the investigation into the plane’s disappearance is Malaysia’s responsibility.
Australia, the US, Britain and China have all agreed to be “accredited representatives” of the investigation.
Meanwhile, the Air Line Pilots Association, a union which represents 30,000 pilots in North America, said that the Malaysia Airlines tragedy should lead to higher standards of plane tracking technology being adopted by the airline industry.