Flight 370 Search Gains Vessel With Black Box-Detector

The Australian vessel Ocean Shield is scheduled to depart today to search for Malaysian Air Flight 370 after being fitted with an autonomous underwater vehicle and equipment to detect the missing plane’s black-box recorder.

Ten aircraft and 10 ships from nations including China, Japan, the U.S., New Zealand, Malaysia and South Korea will take part in the search off the coast of Western Australia today, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement. Some parts of the search zone will experience low cloud and rain.

Time may be running out as the battery-powered beacons that help locate the black boxes on the Boeing Co.’s 777 last about 30 days. The latest lead in the search for the plane that disappeared on March 8 was based on radar and performance data as the airliner flew between the South China Sea and Malacca Strait, authorities said. It shows the plane moved faster, using more fuel, and may not have crashed as far south as estimated earlier.

“If we don’t get a location on that pinger, we then have to very slowly use sonar to get an image, a digital image of the bottom of the ocean and that is incredibly, a long process to go through,” Commander William Marks, spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” television program yesterday.

Rubbish Found

Aircraft yesterday continued to report sightings of multiple items in a search area that covered about 252,000 square kilometers (97,300 square miles). Searchers said objects retrieved from the Indian Ocean so far are rubbish with no evidence of being related to the missing plane as the hunt for the jetliner enters its fourth week.

“Our primary focus at the moment is to use the aircraft to identify wreckage and have the ships move in and pick up the wreckage out of the water,” Commodore Peter Leavy, who is coordinating the Australian military’s search contribution, told reporters yesterday. “This is a critical step.”

White, red and orange “suspicious objects” had been seen as the Chinese ship Jinggangshan, carrying two helicopters, joined the Haixun 01 in the search area, the official Xinhua news agency said on March 29.

Examinations of the home flight simulator of the jet’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, haven’t found anything sinister, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said March 29. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Britain’s MI6 and Chinese intelligence agencies are helping with the investigation, he said.

FBI Analysis

Technicians from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation have almost finished extracting data from the pilot’s digital media, which include the hard drive from his flight simulator, and the bureau is almost halfway done in the analysis of that data, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the probe remains active. The official said no smoking gun has emerged thus far, though the FBI’s work won’t be complete for another few days or a week.

Even then, the official said, what may seem irrelevant now may take on new significance in light of future developments or information gleaned in the multinational investigation into what occurred on the plane.

The new search zone is about 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) to the northeast of the previous area, off Australia’s west coast. Investigators narrowed in on the area with an analysis assuming that Flight 370 traveled at close to constant velocity.

A New Zealand P3 Orion patrol plane found 11 objects inside a small radius, about 1,600 kilometers directly west of Perth, Air Vice-Marshall Kevin Short, commander of joint forces New Zealand, said in a telephone interview March 29.

Redirecting Satellites

Because the latest search zone is closer to Australia than previous locations, aircraft have more time over the water. Ocean depth in the area ranges from 2,000 meters to 4,000 meters.

The Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation is redirecting satellites to scan the region as well. The Federal Aviation Administration and the U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch are also assisting the search.

“You’ve practically got everybody in the aviation industry involved in the search and rescue,” Hishammuddin told reporters on March 29.

The search for Flight 370 initially focused on the Gulf of Thailand, south of Vietnam, before switching to the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea after radar data showed that the plane had backtracked west across the Malaysian peninsula.

No Survivors

The hunt was then extended thousands of miles from the original search zone after analysis of satellite signals suggested the plane had continued flying for five hours in one of two possible arcs over the Indian Ocean or Asian landmass.

Inmarsat Plc concluded that the profile of satellite pings showed the jet definitely took the southern arc, prompting Malaysian Airline System Bhd. to say that the 777 had crashed into the ocean and that there was no hope of survivors.

Malaysia Air will fly family members to Perth once it has been confirmed that any wreckage found belongs to flight 370.

“Arrangements will be made as soon as the relevant government agencies have provided clearances for Malaysia Airlines to bring family members to the site where aircraft wreckage will be kept,” the carrier said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

Wooden Pallet

Since the focus shifted to the southern Indian Ocean more than a week ago, planes have made multiple sightings of debris, including a wooden pallet with straps and unidentified green and orange objects, none of which have been recovered.

The Malaysian aircraft may have cruised steadily across the Indian Ocean after diverting from its route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, according to Inmarsat. The jet flew over the equator and away from the satellite, according to analysis by the engineers, spokesman Chris McLaughlin said.

Recovery of the data and cockpit-voice recorders would help investigators decipher the plane’s movements and its pilots’ actions in the hours after contact was lost.

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