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More 'pings' raise hopes Flight 370 will be found

Source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority The signals are getting weaker, which means we're either moving away from the search area, the pinger batteries are dying or other factors on the ocean floor are affecting them, said Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the chief coordinator for the operation. The first signals lasted 2 hours 20 minutes on Saturday afternoon, followed by 13 minutes on Saturday night. Days later, two more were detected: 5 minutes 32 seconds on Tuesday afternoon and 7 minutes on Tuesday night. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has been missing since March 8th, 2014 and was carrying 239 people.
Credit: Australian Maritime Safety Autho

In search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, two new signals buoy hope
By Ed Payne and Greg Botelho


(CNN) -- In a sea of uncertainty, two bits of good news emerged Wednesday.

Searchers picked up fresh signals that officials hope came from locator beacons attached to the so-called black boxes in the tail of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared more than a month ago while carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The Australian ship Ocean Shield first picked up two sets of underwater pulses Saturday. It heard nothing more until Tuesday, when it reacquired the signals twice. The four signals were within 17 miles of one another.

"I believe we are searching in the right area, but we need to visually identify wreckage before we can confirm with certainty that this is the final resting place of MH370," said retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who's coordinating the Australian operation.

The second piece of good news? Authorities analyzed the signals picked up over the weekend and concluded that they probably came from specific electronic equipment rather than from marine life, which can make similar sounds.

"They believe the signals to be consistent with the specification and description of a flight data recorder," Houston said. "I'm now optimistic that we will find the aircraft or what's left of the aircraft in the not too distant future."

Signals getting weaker

Thursday is Day 34 in the search for Flight 370, which went missing March 8. Authorities are pinning their hopes of finding it on the pings.

Time is of the essence: The batteries powering the flight recorders' locator beacons are certified to emit high-pitched signals for 30 days after they get wet.

"The signals are getting weaker," Houston said, "which means we're either moving away from the search area or the pinger batteries are dying."

• The first signal, at 4:45 p.m. Perth time on Saturday, lasted two hours and 20 minutes, he said;

• the second, at 9:27 p.m. Saturday, lasted 13 minutes;

• the third signal was picked up Tuesday at 4:27 p.m. and lasted five minutes and 32 seconds;

• the fourth, at 10:17 p.m. Tuesday, was seven minutes long.

"It's certainly encouraging that more signals have been detected," Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told CNN. "There is still much work to do, however."

Scouring the ocean for debris

Though plenty of debris has been found, none of it has been linked to the plane, and so the search goes on.

Thursday's effort is set to include up to 10 military planes, four civil aircraft and 13 ships.

Three of them -- the Ocean Shield to the north, and the British HMS Echo and Chinese Haixun 01 to the south -- were focusing underwater.

All told, everyone involved will be scouring a 22,400-square-mile (58,000-square-kilometer) zone centered about 1,400 miles northwest of Perth.

That's roughly the size of West Virginia.

But Thursday's search area is about three quarters of the size of the area teams combed the day before and far smaller than what it was a few weeks ago.

"I think we have got a much clearer picture around the areas that we need to concentrate on," Kevin McEvoy, a New Zealand air force commodore involved in the effort, told CNN's Erin Burnett from Auckland.

Authorities reduced that area after analyzing satellite data and concluding that Flight 370 set off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, toward Beijing, turned back over the Malay Peninsula, then ended up in the southern Indian Ocean.

Why? The answer may reside in the information stored inside the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder.

The ocean to contend with

Hopes were initially raised when a Chinese ship detected pulses last Friday and Saturday that may have been from the plane.

According to McEvoy, "the main focus" now centers on the site of Ocean Shield's discovery. The ship used more advanced detection gear than that aboard the Chinese vessel, whose find was about 375 miles away, leading Houston to believe they are separate signals.

Beyond the dwindling battery life, the ocean also presents challenges: The Ocean Shield signals were in water about 2.6 miles deep, meaning any number of things could literally impede or otherwise disrupt the pulses.

To limit further roiling of the waters, officials are limiting sea traffic in the area. That's one reason that there's no rush to put drones in the water to take photos.

Another reason: Drones are painfully slow. The Ocean Shield towing a pinger locator can search six times the area than can a drone equipped with sonar, Houston said.

"The better the Ocean Shield can define the area, the easier it will be for the autonomous underwater vehicle to subsequently search for aircraft wreckage," he said.

A painstaking process

The more pulses investigators detect, the more they will be able to zero in on the locator beacons, which emit signals for 5 miles in all directions, said Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Once they lose the signals, authorities will start the painstaking process of using side-scanning sonar to search the ocean floor.

Somewhat 'befuddling'

The absence of wreckage near the detected signals leaves some skeptical, worried that the Chinese and Australian ships' finds could mean more false leads in an investigation that's been full of them.

Acknowledging "a very high-speed vertical impact" could explain the lack of aircraft debris, CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien said. He said there's reason to be cautious.

"It's either the most extraordinary event, or those pings weren't real," he said. "It's somewhat befuddling."

In Beijing on a 10-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appeared to be hopeful but restrained. "There has been some new evidence here that maybe these new and emerging sounds may lead to something, but it's important we don't lift anyone's hopes -- the families of these passengers -- in an unfair way," he told CNN's Jim Sciutto in an exclusive interview.

Sarah Bajc, the partner of American passenger Philip Wood, told Burnett that she isn't sure about anything.

"All of us pretty well agree that, until there's the bulk of the plane, the bulk of the bodies discovered, and a black box intact, we won't believe that it's final evidence," Bajc said Wednesday from Beijing. "I don't think the authorities have given us much confidence of their investigative skills so far."

The lack of clarity makes it hard to "grieve properly and ... move on," she said.

"I want to fight to find him, in whatever form that ends up being," said Bajc, who is coordinating with other passengers' kin to press for answers. "And I think most of the families feel the same way."

Until he gets answers, Steve Wang, whose mother was on the plane, is clinging to hope while trying to hold himself together. "We're just going through so many kinds of emotion," he said of his position and those of other relatives of passengers. "Desperate, sad and helpless -- something like that. Everything."

CNN's Shirley Hung, Tom Watkins, Richard Quest, Catherine Shoichet, Jethro Mullen, Matthew Chance, David Molko, Will Ripley, Judy Kwon, Faith Karimi, Ben Brumfield and Mitra Mobasherat and journalist Ivy Sam contributed to this report.


KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press
NICK PERRY, Associated Press

PERTH, Australia (AP) — Planes and ships hunting for the missing Malaysian jetliner zeroed in on a targeted patch of the Indian Ocean on Thursday, after a navy ship picked up underwater signals that are consistent with a plane's black box.

Thursday's search zone was the smallest yet in the monthlong search for Flight 370 — 57,923 square kilometers (22,364 square miles) of ocean — and comes a day after the Australian official in charge of the search expressed hope that crews were closing in on the "final resting place" of the vanished jet.

Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search off Australia's west coast, said Wednesday that equipment on the Australian vessel Ocean Shield had picked up two sounds from deep below the surface on Tuesday, and an analysis of two other sounds detected in the same general area on Saturday showed they were consistent with a plane's flight recorders, or "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," Houston said Wednesday.

No further sounds had been picked up overnight, Houston's search coordination center said Thursday. But the Ocean Shield was continuing its hunt, slowly dragging a U.S. navy pinger locator through the ocean's depths, hoping to find the signal again and get a more specific fix on its location.

Meanwhile, 14 planes and 13 ships were looking for floating debris across the search zone, which extends from 2,280 kilometers (1,400 miles) northwest of Perth, and China's Haixun 01 was using underwater acoustic equipment to search for signals in an area several hundred miles south of the Ocean Shield. A "large number of objects" had been spotted by searchers combing the area on Wednesday, but the few that had been retrieved by search vessels were not believed to be related to the missing plane, the coordination center said.

Search crews have already looked in the area they were crisscrossing on Thursday, but were moving in tighter patterns, now that the search zone has been narrowed to about a quarter the size it was a few days ago, Houston said.

Finding the flight data and cockpit voice recorders soon is important because their locator beacons have a battery life of about a month, and Tuesday marked one month since Flight 370 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people aboard.

If the batteries fail before the recorders are located, finding them in such deep water — about 4,500 meters, or 15,000 feet — would be difficult, if not impossible.

"I believe we are searching in the right area, but we need to visually identify aircraft wreckage before we can confirm with certainty that this is the final resting place of MH370," Houston said. "For the sake of the 239 families, this is absolutely imperative."

The hope expressed by Houston on Wednesday contrasted with the frustrating monthlong search for the Boeing 777, which disappeared shortly after takeoff in one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history. The plane veered off-course for an unknown reason, with officials saying that satellite data indicates it went down in the southern Indian Ocean. The black boxes could help solve that mystery.

The signals detected 1,645 kilometers (1,020 miles) northwest of Perth by the Ocean Shield are the strongest indication yet that the plane crashed and is now at the bottom of the ocean in the area where the search is now focused.

A data analysis of the signals heard Saturday determined they were distinct, man-made and pulsed consistently, Houston said.

"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 dropped buoys by parachute in a pattern near where the signals were last heard.

Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Leavy said each buoy will dangle a hydrophone listening device about 300 meters (1,000 feet) below the surface. The hope, he said, is the buoys will help better pinpoint the signals.

Houston acknowledged searchers were running out of time, noting the last two signals were weaker and briefer than the first pair heard Saturday, suggesting the batteries are failing.

"So we need to, as we say in Australia, 'make hay while the sun shines,'" Houston said.

The weakening of the signals also could indicate the device was farther away, U.S. Navy Capt. Mark Matthews said. Temperature, water pressure or the saltiness of the sea could also be factors.

Leavy said thick silt on the ocean floor also could distort the sounds and may hide wreckage from the eventual visual search.

Houston said a decision had not yet been made on how long to use the towed ping locator while knowing the beacons' batteries will likely fail soon, saying only that a decision to deploy an unmanned submarine in the search was "not far away."

When the ping locator's use is exhausted, the sub will be sent to create a sonar map of a potential debris field on the seabed. The Bluefin 21 sub takes six times longer to cover the same area as the ping locator.

Matthews said the detections indicate the beacon is within about a 20-kilometer (12-mile) radius, equal to a 1,300-square-kilometer (500-square-mile) chunk of the ocean floor — an area the size of Los Angeles.

It would take the sub about six weeks to two months to canvass an area that big, which is why the ping locator is still being used to hone in on a more precise location, Matthews said.

The audio search was narrowed to its current position after engineers predicted a flight path by analyzing signals between the plane and a satellite and investigators used radar data to determine the plane's speed and where it may have run out of fuel.

Houston noted that all four of the pings detected since Saturday were near the site of a final, partial "handshake" signal revealed earlier in the investigation.


Gelineau reported from Sydney. Associated Press Writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

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