* Bluefin searching at record depth
* Drone equipment put at risk
* Air and surface search continues
(Recasts with drone reaching record depth, adds U.S. Navy
By Byron Kaye
PERTH, Australia, April 18 An underwater drone
scouring the Indian Ocean floor for a missing Malaysian jetliner
has dived to its deepest ever level, putting its equipment at
unprecedented risk, as hopes dwindled that it might soon turn up
some sign of wreckage.
The U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 and its "side scan" sonar has
become the focal point of the search some 2,000 km (1,200 miles)
west of the Australian city of Perth, where authorities believe
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 hit the ocean after
disappearing from radars on March 8 with 239 people on board.
The search has centred on a city-sized area where a series
of "pings" led authorities to believe the plane's black box may
be located. But after more than a week without a signal, and
almost two weeks past the black box battery's life expectancy,
authorities have turned to the Bluefin-21.
But the Bluefin-21's searches of the largely unmapped ocean
floor have been frustrated by an automatic safety mechanism
which sends it to the surface when it exceeds a depth of 4.5 km
(14,763 feet). Its searches have yet to find any sign of the
On Friday, as searchers waited for the remote-control
submarine to return from its fifth mission, the U.S. Navy said
the Bluefin-21 had gone to a record depth of 4,695 metres
(15,403 feet) in its previous mission.
"This is the first time the Bluefin-21 has descended to this
depth," U.S. Navy spokesman Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel S.
Marciniak said in a statement.
"Diving to such depths does carry with it some residual risk
to the equipment and this is being carefully monitored by the
U.S. Navy and (Bluefin-21 owner) Phoenix International
He also confirmed that the Bluefin-21's search area had been
reduced based on further analysis of the initial signals
believed to have come from the plane's black box. Authorities
have said the U.S. Navy's previous estimate, that the
Bluefin-21's hunt may take two months, was also wrong and the
drone was focusing on a "reduced and more focused underwater
NO END IN SIGHT
On Monday, the search coordinator, retired Air Chief Marshal
Angus Houston, said the air and surface search for debris would
likely end in three days as the operation shifted its focus to
the ocean floor.
But on Friday, the Perth-based Joint Agency Coordination
Centre said that up to 11 military aircraft and 12 ships would
join in the search across 52,000 square km (32 square miles) of
ocean. Marciniak said U.S. patrol aircraft "continue to support
the search effort".
That would suggest searchers, under pressure from the
families of those on board the plane that was on a flight from
Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it disappeared, still hold some
hope of finding floating wreckage.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quoted by the Wall
Street Journal on Wednesday as saying that "we believe that
(underwater) search will be completed within a week or so. If we
don't find wreckage, we stop, we regroup, we reconsider".
Asked by Reuters to clarify Abbott's comments to the
newspaper, his office said he was only suggesting that
authorities may change the area being searched by the Bluefin-21
drone, not that the search would be called off.
Malaysia's defence minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, vowed
that the search would continue even if there could be a pause to
regroup and reconsider the best area to scour.
"The search will always continue. It's just a matter of
approach," he told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.
He said Abbott remained in close contact with Malaysian
Prime Minister Najib Razak and the two had spoken on Thursday to
discuss the search.
(Additional reporting by Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah in Kuala Lumpur;
Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel)