More underwater pings heard in hunt for missing jet, raising hopes wreckage will soon be found

NICK PERRY and KRISTEN GELINEAU
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

PERTH, Australia — The frustrating month-long search for the Malaysian jetliner received a tremendous boost when a navy ship detected two more signals that most likely emanated from the aircraft’s black boxes. The Australian official co-ordinating the search expressed hope Wednesday that the wreckage will soon be found.

Angus Houston, head of a joint agency co-ordinating the search for the missing plane in the southern Indian Ocean, said that the Australian naval vessel Ocean Shield picked up the two signals on Tuesday, and that an analysis of two sounds detected in the same area on Saturday showed they were consistent with a plane’s black boxes.

“I’m now optimistic that we will find the aircraft, or what is left of the aircraft, in the not-too-distant future. But we haven’t found it yet, because this is a very challenging business,” Houston said at a news conference in Perth, the hub for the search operation.

This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Gunner Richard Brown (L) of Transit Security Element on the lookout on the forecastle of HMAS Perth in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. AFP PHOTO/AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE/ABIS NICOLAS GONZALEZ

The signals detected 1,645 kilometres (1,020 miles) northwest of Perth are the strongest indication yet that the plane crashed and is now lying at the bottom of the ocean in the area where the search is now focused. Still, Houston warned he could not yet conclude that searchers had pinpointed Flight 370’s crash site.

“I think that we’re looking in the right area, but I’m not prepared to say, to confirm, anything until such time as somebody lays eyes on the wreckage,” he said.

Finding the black boxes quickly is a matter of urgency because their locator beacons have a battery life of only about a month, and Tuesday marked exactly one month since the plane vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board.

If the beacons blink off before the black boxes’ location can be determined, finding them in such deep water — about 4,500 metres, or 15,000 feet — would be an immensely difficult, if not impossible, task.

The Ocean Shield first detected underwater sounds on Saturday before losing them, but managed to pick them up again on Tuesday, Houston said. The ship is equipped with a U.S. Navy towed pinger locator that is designed to detect signals from a plane’s two black boxes — the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

A data analysis of the signals heard Saturday determined they were distinct, man-made and pulsed consistently, Houston said, indicating they were coming from a plane’s black box.

“They believe the signals to be consistent with the specification and description of a flight data recorder,” he said.

To assist the Ocean Shield, the Australian navy on Wednesday began using parachutes to drop a series of buoys in a pattern near where the signals were last heard.

Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Leavy said each buoy will dangle an underwater listening device called a hydrophone about 300 metres (1,000 feet) below the surface.

The hope, he said, is the buoys will help better pinpoint the location of the signals.

Houston acknowledged searchers were running out of time, and noted that the signals picked up on Tuesday were weaker and briefer than the ones heard over the weekend, suggesting that the batteries might be dying. The two signals detected on Saturday lasted two hours and 20 minutes and 13 minutes, respectively; the sounds heard Tuesday lasted just 5 and a half minutes and 7 minutes.

“So we need to, as we say in Australia, ‘make hay while the sun shines,”’ Houston said.

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