Plane Hunt Fails to Find New Pings as Battery Power May Be Gone

Apr 12, 2014 7:39 pm ET

(For more on Flight 370, see EXT3.)

April 13 (Bloomberg) -- Authorities hunting for the black boxes on the missing Malaysian Air jet failed to detect their signals for another full day, increasing the likelihood that the devices’ battery power has expired.

“There have been no confirmed acoustic detections over the past 24 hours,” Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre said, repeating the statement it made yesterday. The task of finding the black boxes shouldn’t be underestimated and the search was likely to continue “for a long time to come,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Beijing.

Four signals detected between April 5 and 8 with the towed pinger locator pulled by Australia vessel Ocean Shield helped tighten the hunt for the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane. Hopes of a breakthrough dissipated on April 11 when JACC said that an initial assessment of a fifth potential transmission, picked up by a sensor-equipped buoy dropped by a search plane, 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.”

The center of today’s search areas is 2,200 kilometers (1,364 miles) northwest of Perth, with as many as 12 aircraft and 14 ships taking part, JACC said. The visual search will span an area of about 57,506 square kilometers.

‘Massive Task’

“We have very considerably narrowed down the search area but trying to locate anything four and a half kilometers beneath the surface of the ocean, about a 1,000 kilometers from land, is a massive, massive task,” Abbott said yesterday.

On Friday, he said he was confident the position of the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders had been narrowed down to “within some kilometers” in the Indian Ocean.

Zeroing in on the source of acoustic pulses linked to Flight 370’s black-box beacons is pivotal and will help determine when investigators will launch a robot submarine to scan the seabed. The Bluefin-21 sub aboard the Ocean Shield moves slowly and relies on sonar to spot wreckage in pitch-black waters thousands of meters deep, limiting the area it brings under surveillance.

The challenge is that the pingers’ batteries are already beyond their 30-day projected life at full power, leaving investigators in a race against time to detect more pulses and map the ideal launch zone for the Bluefin-21.

Submarine Launch

“We are now looking at the next phase of this search, which is actually going down underwater,” Malaysia’s acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters yesterday at Sepang outside Kuala Lumpur. The submarine wouldn’t be launched until “we are more sure that the signals are coming from those black boxes.”

Authorities are pinning their hopes on recovering the black boxes to learn why the Boeing Co. 777-200ER disappeared March 8 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. The plane reversed course and flew into some of the world’s most-remote ocean waters with 239 passengers and crew members.

The Ocean Shield detected two signals on April 5 and two more on April 8 that authorities have linked to the beacons on Flight 370’s black-box recorders, giving authorities a boost in a search that has failed to produce any physical evidence.

Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid attempted to make a phone call from his mobile phone shortly before the aircraft disappeared from radar some 320 kilometers northwest of Penang, the New Straits Times reported yesterday, citing unidentified people. 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. Hishammuddin told Malaysia’s national news agency, Bernama, that he couldn’t comment on the report “because if it is true, we would have known about it much earlier.”

--With assistance from John Walcott and Alan Levin in Washington, Shamim Adam and Kyunghee Park in Singapore, Laura Hurst in London, Zachary Tracer in New York, Michael Heath, Edward Johnson, David Fickling, Narayanan Somasundaram and Michael Sin in Sydney, Andrea Rothman in Toulouse, Thomas Black in Monterrey , Helen Yuan in Shanghai and Liau Y-Sing and Manirajan Ramasamy in Kuala Lumpur.