Saturday, April 19, 2014

Seabed Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to Be Finished in Five to Seven Days: Search Area a 10 Kilometer Radius Around Second Ping Detected

The Wall Street Journal
By Lucy Craymer And Richard C. Paddock 

Updated  April 19, 2014 6:03 a.m. ET 

PERTH, Australia—The initial underwater search of a remote stretch of southern Indian Ocean seabed in what is thought to be the most likely spot for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is expected to be completed within seven days, Australian authorities said Saturday.

In Kuala Lumpur, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that the next few days of the search would be crucial in directing the search for the missing airplane.

"Whatever is the outcome of the next two days, we need to regroup and consider the operations," he told reporters. "The narrowing of the search for today and tomorrow is at a very critical juncture so I appeal to everybody around the world to pray and pray hard that we find something to work on over the next couple of days."

Search crews are focusing on an area within about a 6.2 mile radius of an electronic signal detected on April 8 that investigators believe may have come from the missing jet's "black box" flight recorders, the Australian authority leading the recovery operation told The Wall Street Journal Saturday. Acoustic analysis of a series of signals picked up by a U.S. Navy black box locater between April 5 and April 8 led authorities to significantly tighten the area where an undersea vehicle was deployed Monday to scan the seabed for wreckage, in a search that U.S. Navy officials had originally predicted would take up to two months.

The U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 autonomous vehicle—which moves at a walking pace—has so far completed six separate underwater missions over the previous five days covering more than 50 square miles but has found nothing of interest. Data from the sixth mission has yet to be analyzed and a seventh mission is under way.

"We are satisfied with progress so far, although there have been some planning adjustments caused by weather, unserviceability and other unforeseen circumstances," Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Centre said, without providing specifics. "We should complete the search of the focused underwater area in five to seven days."

Mr. Hishammuddin didn't say why the next two days would be critical when leaders of the search in Australia have indicated the next five to seven days will be key.

"With regards to the location, today and tomorrow it's imperative that we focus because the JACC and all the experts have narrowed the area of search to what we are looking at today and tomorrow," the minister said.

If the search by the Bluefin turns up nothing, he said, it may be necessary to re-evaluate the satellite and radar data once again to see if the vessel is looking in the right location. But he said the search would continue even if nothing is found by Monday.

"It does not mean we are going to stop the operations," he said. "By Monday we will be in a better position to see what needs to be done and this is at the very highest level," he said.

So far, a monthlong search of the southern Indian Ocean hasn't recovered a single piece of physical evidence of the jet. The search effort's primary goal remains recovering the Boeing 777's black-box flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders. That task has been made more difficult, however, as the batteries powering emergency locaters on the black boxes have long passed their estimated 30-day expiration date and it is unlikely they are still emitting signals that would help search crews find them.

The Malaysian plane veered sharply off course March 8 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, with 239 passengers and crew. Authorities believe the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean, far from the western coast of Australia, after running out of fuel.

A separate air-and-sea search of the ocean surface for plane debris continued Saturday, with 11 military aircraft and 12 ships searching about 20,000 square miles of ocean.

Authorities have several options available if the current underwater search by Bluefin turns up nothing. They could order a second sweep of the seabed in a tight area where the first signals believed to have come from Flight 370's black boxes were detected. The search could also be expanded to a wider area around a series of transmissions heard on four occasions.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Director General of Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation, told reporters that Malaysia and Australia are negotiating an agreement over how the two countries would handle the wreckage, the black boxes and human remains, should any of these be recovered.

Mr. Azharruddin declined to provide any details of the agreement, including which agency or experts would be called on to open and analyze the all-important data recorders, if they are found.

"We are unable to tell you in detail because this will be a discussion, agreement, to be agreed upon and signed between the two states," he said.

Australian officials also declined to discuss details of the agreement, saying in a statement: "Malaysia and Australia are now developing a comprehensive and detailed Memorandum of Understanding to include all aspects of prolonged and extensive search and recovery activities."

Other organizations are also ready to provide submersibles that can go deeper, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which helped recover the black boxes from an Air France plane that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. In that crash, however, authorities were much more certain about the point of impact, having recovered debris within days of the accident.

"We've got some promising leads that we are going to pursue. And after we pursue those leads if we have not found a debris field or any other indications that's when you step back and look at these other assets and you get into this long term search plan," U.S. Navy Captain Mark Matthews told reporters earlier in the week.

—Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.