Malaysia Airlines: Australia sees long jet hunt as data scant amid bad weather

Published: April 1, 2014

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In this photo taken April 29, 2014 provided by the Australia Defence Force, multinational air-crew and aircraft involved in operation "Southern Indian Ocean" are assembled for a photo at RAAF Base Pearce, in Perth, Western Australia. Seven nations, including Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., South Korea, Malaysia, China and Japan, have flew daily search mission out to the southern Indian Ocean in the massive multinational hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. AP Photo/Australian Defence Force, Cpl. Nicci Freeman

JASON SCOTT
BLOOMBERG NEWS

Crews searching for the missing Malaysian jet face an extended operation because of difficult conditions and a lack of information, the Australian official overseeing the operations said.

Koji Kubota of the Japan Coast Guard keeps watch for debris on board the Japan Coast Guard Gulfstream V aircraft whilst in the search zone for debris from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on April 1, 2014. AFP PHOTO /GETTY iMAGES

“We are working from a very uncertain starting point,” said retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who heads Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre. “It’s not something that’s necessarily going to be resolved in the next two weeks.”

Ten aircraft and nine ships from seven countries scoured 120,000 square kilometers (46,000 square miles) of the southern Indian Ocean amid rough seas and strong winds. The lack of flight data keeps investigators from narrowing the search area for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane, which vanished March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board.

The transcript of communications between the jet and air traffic controllers in Kuala Lumpur showed nothing abnormal, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said. The transcript was released today. Those exchanges stopped less than an hour into the flight, and the jet then reversed course away from Beijing and toward the southern Indian Ocean.

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Satellite Contacts

Investigators have relied on limited contact between the Boeing Co. 777-200ER and an Inmarsat Plc satellite to draw up a search area in waters known for four-meter swells and depths that range from 2,000 meters to 4,000 meters (2.5 miles). Weather in the search zone is expected to ease, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a Twitter posting.

“This could drag on for a long time,” said Houston. “If we don’t find wreckage on the surface, we are eventually going to have to probably, in consultation with everybody who has a stake in this, review what we do next.”

Planes and ships from Australia, Malaysia, China, the U.S., South Korea, New Zealand and Japan are taking part in the hunt, now on its fourth week. It’s the longest period in modern passenger-airline history between a disappearance and initial findings of debris.

The previous mark was set when Adam Air Flight 574 went missing off the coast of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi seven years ago. The Boeing 737-400, operated by PT Adam Skyconnection Airlines, lost contact with air traffic control Jan. 1, 2007. Wreckage wasn’t found until the 10th day of the search.

Safety Recommendations

Flight Safety Foundation, a U.S. non-profit safety group, urged the airline industry to adopt some form of real-time aircraft data monitoring to ensure that flights won’t be lost over oceans or remote regions.

While stopping short of endorsing specific technologies, the Alexandria, Virginia-based group said data transmissions would improve search missions and lead to more timely safety improvements after accidents. It proposed an “international symposium” on aircraft tracking and communication.

“Given existing technology, we simply should not be losing contact with aircraft for unknown reasons,” Kenneth Hylander, the foundation’s acting president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Malaysian Air and the country’s Department of Civil Aviation will hold a closed-door briefing tomorrow in Kuala Lumpur for the relatives of passengers, Hishammuddin said in a statement today.

Australia’s Ocean Shield ship, fitted with equipment to detect the black box recorders, is heading to the zone. The recovery effort faces a narrowing window as batteries in the black box pingers that emit signals only last for about 30 days.

‘Very Large’

The vessel isn’t projected to reach the region until April 3, and even then the prospect of finding the recorders is a slim one because the gear towed by the Ocean Shield has a range of only about a mile.

“The search area is very large, it’s vast and clearly an area that the like of which we haven’t seen before on a search and rescue operation like this,” JACC’s Houston told reporters in Perth. “It’s very complex, it’s very demanding, and we don’t have hard information like we might normally have.”

The black boxes in aircraft, which are actually bright orange, emit pings for 30 days after becoming immersed in water. They’re designed to withstand depths of 20,000 feet and may work in even deeper water.

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. Officials are still trying to determine whether the final words radioed from the cockpit were spoken by the pilot or co-pilot, the Malaysian government said.

Last Speaker?

Investigators previously said they believed the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, was the last speaker, just before radio contact was handed over to Vietnamese authorities as the plane flew to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. The aircraft then vanished from civilian radar, while a military radar detected a blip over peninsular Malaysia, later confirmed as Flight 370.

“The international investigations team and the Malaysian authorities remain of the opinion that, up until the point at which it left military primary radar coverage, MH370’s movements were consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Hishammuddin said.

Investigators said the last words exchanged between Flight 370 and air traffic controllers were “Good night Malaysian three seven zero.” The authorities had previously said the last words were “alright, good night.”

Conflicting Statements

Malaysian authorities had earlier issued conflicting statements related to Flight 370.

On March 13, Hishammuddin said reports the plane may have continued flying for some time after its last transmission of engine performance were “inaccurate.”

Two days later, his cousin Prime Minister Najib Razak said satellite data showed the plane operated for almost seven hours after last making contact with air traffic controllers, and Malaysia was calling off its search in the South China Sea along the intended flight path.

On March 10, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, said the carrier removed the baggage of five passengers who didn’t board after checking in. The next day, the airline said no unaccompanied baggage was offloaded.

“We have nothing to hide,” Paul Low, minister in the prime minister’s department in charge of fighting graft, said in an interview in Singapore today. “Why would we want to cover up and have an international inquiry at the same time?”

–With assistance from Shamim Adam and Sharon Chen in Singapore, David Fickling and Edward Johnson in Sydney and Manirajan Ramasamy and Chong Pooi Koon in Kuala Lumpur. To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14(at)bloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at anandk(at)bloomberg.net Ed Dufner, Molly Schuetz

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