Plane Searchers Expand Visual Hunt With Black Boxes Silent

Sunday, 13 Apr 2014 07:02 AM

 

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PERTH, Australia — Authorities have expanded a visual search for the missing Malaysian Air jet as a failure to detect further signals from the plane’s black-box recorders deepened concern the devices’ battery power has expired.

Since four signals were heard between April 5 and 8, no further signs have been confirmed from the pinger locator pulled by vessel Ocean Shield. Australian authorities today deployed more planes to scour 57,506 square kilometers of water, while a seabed-scanning robot submarine remained unused.

The black boxes are key to hopes of learning why the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane disappeared March 8 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, reversing course and flying into some of the world’s most-remote ocean waters. The pingers’ batteries are now five days beyond their 30-day projected life at full power.

“You’ve got to be honest — it is a massive task and it is going to take some time,” said Hamish McLean, a lecturer in crises management at Griffith University’s School of Humanities in Brisbane. What searchers and authorities “need to do is look at the big picture, set realistic expectations, treat every bit of information nugget very carefully.”

The center of today’s search areas is 1,367 miles northwest of Perth, with as many as 12 aircraft and 14 ships taking part, Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Center said. No confirmed acoustic detections had been made over the past 24 hours, it said, repeating the statement it made yesterday.

Investigators are in a race against time to detect more pulses and map the ideal launch zone for Ocean Shield’s Bluefin-21, which moves slowly and relies on sonar to spot wreckage in pitch-black waters thousands of meters deep, limiting the area it brings under surveillance. JACC Chief Coordinator Angus Houston said April 11 a decision on when to deploy the sub “could be some days away.”

The Ocean Shield detected two signals on April 5 and two more on April 8 that authorities have linked to the beacons on the Boeing Co. 777-200ER’s black-box recorders, giving authorities a boost in a search that has failed to produce any physical evidence. Hopes of a breakthrough dissipated on April 11 when JACC said that an initial assessment of a fifth potential transmission wasn’t related to an aircraft black box.

“It’s possible the battery power is either running down that the signal becomes weaker and so you have to get much closer to be able to hear,” Chris Yates, a London-based aviation consultant at Yates Consulting, said in a phone interview yesterday. “Or it means the black box is already dead.”

Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid attempted to make a phone call from his mobile phone shortly before the aircraft disappeared from radar northwest of Penang, the New Straits Times reported yesterday, citing unidentified sources.

His call ended abruptly after contact was established with a telecommunications sub-station in Penang, the Malaysian paper said, adding that it didn’t know who the pilot tried to call.

The newspaper quoted another unnamed person as saying the connection to the substation could mean the phone was turned back on, without a call being made.

Malaysia’s police chief Khalid Abu Bakar declined to comment on the report in a phone text message to Bloomberg News. Acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein today told reporters that the co-pilot didn’t make a call “as far as I know.”

The hunt for the plane would probably continue “for a long time to come,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Beijing on April 12, the day after he stoked optimism by saying that searchers were focused “within some kilometers” of the units under the Indian Ocean. JACC’s Houston subsequently released a statement saying “there has been no major breakthrough in the search for MH370.”

The correct management and release of any information from the search was vital to avoid giving friends and relatives of the 239 passengers and crew members aboard Flight 370 false hope, said Griffith University’s McLean, the co-author of “Crisis Command: Strategies for Managing Corporate Crises.”

“The challenge now for Malaysian Airlines and the authorities is the length of time this is taking,” he said. “Any speck or nugget of information is seized upon by the relatives, the media and the stakeholders, which then can be blown way out of proportion. Every piece of information and every word must be treated carefully to avoid creating unrealistic expectations.”

© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

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