Thursday, April 24, 2014

Search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 Prepares for Reset: Negotiations on How to Manage Next Phase Advance

The Wall Street Journal

By Daniel Stacey and Andy Pasztor

Updated April 23, 2014 7:30 p.m. ET

International search teams are negotiating how they will manage the next phase of their underwater hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, amid signs the effort is poised for a reset after nearly seven fruitless weeks.

Procedures for retrieving and analyzing information from the flight's "black-box" recorders are part of a draft agreement under review by Malaysian and Australian officials that lays out a long-term plan for cooperation in the investigation, according to participants or people briefed on the details.

The draft proposals specify that Australian air-safety experts would be responsible for downloading and interpreting data from the jet's black-box recorders, if they are found, and also spell out how any wreckage or human remains would be handled if retrieved from deep under the Indian Ocean, according to Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

Malaysian officials, expected to retain authority for public disclosure of black-box data and other important information about the focus of the probe, have declined to comment on the specifics of the pending memorandum of understanding.

Malaysian and Australian government officials are discussing with counterparts from several other nations how to proceed if the current effort leads to another dead end.

By Thursday, a single unmanned submersible had covered 90% of an area investigators say holds the best hope for finding the wreckage of the Boeing 777. Neither the submersible nor air and sea searches for floating debris have turned up anything.

Barring any major developments, according to air-safety experts and some searchers, countries participating in the hunt for the wreckage are expected to call in additional hardware. Such a recalibrated effort most likely would include some different search technology and cover a significantly larger area.

Search coordinators are "increasing assets for the next phase" of the deep-sea search, Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's defense chief and the point man in the investigation, said on Wednesday. He said discussions with international partners were under way but no expansion of the search was likely until at least the end of the week.

If the Bluefin-21 submersible's sonar fails to locate any wreckage, a different type of sonar system that has greater range but provides lower-resolution images would likely be deployed, Australia Defense Minister David Johnston said. "The next phase, I think, is that we step up with potentially a more powerful, more capable side-scan sonar to do deeper water," he said.

If the flight-data recorder is recovered and successfully downloaded, extensive information about speed, flight maneuvers, cockpit commands and operation of onboard systems could offer vital clues about why the widebody jet veered so sharply off course.

Investigators believe the plane, which disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8 with 239 people aboard, crashed into the southern Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia after running out of fuel.

Even as nations discuss the management of the potential recovery effort, investigators are expected to once again reassess calculations of where the aircraft ended up. The current search area is based heavily on refined analysis of a series of so-called digital handshakes, or signal transmissions, between the jet and a commercial-communications satellite orbiting roughly 22,000 miles above the earth. Investigators also have factored in military radar data, fuel-consumption projections and other variables to try to pinpoint the most likely place the jet entered the water.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday search crews wouldn't give up even if the initial underwater search is unsuccessful, and his comments were echoed by Malaysian authorities. "We may well rethink the search," Mr. Abbott said, but Australia "will not rest until we have done everything we humanly can to get to the bottom of this mystery."

For now, the U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 submersible is focusing on a remote stretch of ocean where searchers earlier detected pings believed to have come from the jet's flight recorders.

The only course, according to Mr. Abbott, "is to keep searching the probable impact zone until we find something, or until we have searched it as thoroughly as human ingenuity allows."

Australia's safety bureau has been vetting the calculations of international experts, while playing an increasingly important role in the probe. The ATSB has a history of assisting in aviation investigations in the Asian-Pacific region, particularly the analysis of data from cockpit-voice recorders.

Over the past three years, the bureau has assisted air-accident investigators in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, though the countries where the planes were registered remained in charge of the probes. The agency "has been building these relationships, feeding them and maintaining them over the years," according to John Purvis, a former head of Boeing's accident-investigation office. "Now all that is paying dividends."

Three ATSB officials already are on board the Australian naval vessel Ocean Shield, from which the Bluefin-21 has launched 10 daily missions.

Relatives of the passengers vented their frustration over the weekend at the lack of tangible evidence about the fate of the jet. The family members are demanding physical evidence of the plane's fate before any determination is made about the fate of the passengers.

Angus Houston, the former Australian defense chief heading the overall search, previously stressed the painstaking nature of the effort, suggesting it could take many weeks or longer to show results. "Nothing happens quickly when you get below the waves," he has told reporters, saying the search relies "on the best expertise in the world" and "we have the best equipment in the world out there."

Wednesday's developments in Kuala Lumpur, however, aren't likely to help ease the distrust of the families of victims. Malaysia's top civil-aviation official said officials have finished the preliminary factual report on Flight 370 required by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations.

But contrary to normal procedure in the U.S. and other countries with large and experienced accident investigation agencies, Malaysia didn't release a copy of the document. Mr. Hishammuddin, though, indicated to reporters that Malaysia probably would have to make the report public in light of the extent of public interest.

—Lucy Craymer contributed to this article.