Ships race to site of reported ‘pings’ in search for jet

Australian search co-ordinator says report of signals ‘an important and encouraging lead’

Sun, Apr 6, 2014, 18:25

Searchers hunting for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane are racing to a patch of the southern Indian Ocean to determine whether a few brief sounds picked up by underwater equipment came from the jet’s black boxes.

Ships scouring a remote stretch of water for the plane that vanished nearly a month ago detected three separate sounds over the course of three days.

A Chinese ship picked up an electronic pulsing signal on Friday and again on Saturday in a small part of the search zone, and an Australian ship carrying sophisticated deep-sea sound equipment picked up a signal in a different area on Sunday, the head of the multinational search said.

But there were questions about whether any of the sounds were the breakthrough searchers are desperately seeking or just another dead end in a hunt seemingly full of them, with experts expressing doubt that the equipment aboard the Chinese ship was capable of picking up signals from the plane’s two black boxes.

“This is an important and encouraging lead, but one which I urge you to treat carefully,” retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search, told reporters in Perth.

“What we’ve got here are fleeting, fleeting acoustic events... That’s all we’ve got,” he said. “It’s not a continuous transmission. If you get close to the device, we should be receiving it for a longer period of time than just a fleeting encounter.”

None of the signals has been verified as being linked to Flight 370, which was travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board.

“We are dealing with very deep water, we are dealing with an environment where sometimes you can get false indications,” Mr Houston said. “There are lots of noises in the ocean, and sometimes the acoustic equipment can rebound, echo if you like.”

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that the patrol vessel Haixun 01 detected a “pulse signal” on Friday in the southern Indian Ocean at 37.5 kilohertz — the same frequency emitted by the missing plane’s black boxes.

Mr Houston confirmed the report, and said the Haixun 01 detected a signal again yesterday within 1.4 miles of the original signal, for 90 seconds. He said China also reported seeing white objects floating in the sea in the area.

The British navy ship HMS Echo, which is fitted with sophisticated sound-locating equipment, is moving to the area where the signals were picked up and is expected to arrive early on Monday, Mr Houston said.

The Australian navy’s Ocean Shield, which is carrying high-tech sound detectors from the US Navy, will also head there, but will first investigate the sound it picked up in its current region, about 300 nautical miles away, he said.