(Adds UPDATE 2 slug)
By Matt Siegel and Byron Kaye
SYDNEY/PERTH, Australia, April 19 Australian
officials supervising the search for missing Malaysia Airlines
Flight MH370 said on Saturday that an underwater search for the
black box recorder based on "pings" possibly from the device
could be completed in five to seven days.
A U.S. Navy deep-sea autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is
scouring a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean floor for signs of
the plane, which disappeared from radars on March 8 with 239
people on board and is believed to have crashed in the area.
After almost two months without a sign of wreckage, the
current underwater search has been narrowed to a circular area
with a radius of 10 km (6.2 miles) around the location in which
one of four pings believed to have come from the black box
recorders was detected on April 8, officials said.
"Provided the weather is favourable for launch and recovery
of the AUV and we have a good run with the serviceability of the
AUV, we should complete the search of the focused underwater
area in five to seven days," the Joint Agency Coordination
Centre told Reuters in an email.
Officials did not indicate whether they were confident that
this search area would yield any new information about the
flight, nor did they state what steps they would take in the
event that the underwater search were to prove fruitless.
The comment came in response to a request for clarification
from the agency, after it said in a statement on Thursday that
previous media reports suggesting the underwater search could
take as long as several months were inaccurate.
Search planes and ships from a half dozen countries have
tried in vain to catch any glimpse of the wreckage after nearly
two months of daily sorties, making this the most expensive such
operation in aviation history.
DRONE GOES DEEPER THAN EVER BEFORE
After almost two weeks without a signal, and long past the
black box battery's 30-day life expectancy, authorities are
increasingly reliant on the $4 million U.S. Bluefin-21 drone,
which on Saturday was expected to dive to unprecedented depths.
Because visual searches of the ocean surface have yielded no
concrete evidence, the drone and its ability to search deep
beneath the ocean surface with "side scan" sonar has become the
focal point of the search 2,000 km (1,200 miles) west of the
Australian city of Perth.
The search has thus far centred on a city-sized area where a
series of "pings" led authorities to believe the plane's black
box may be located. The current refined search area is based on
one such transmission.
After the drone's searches were frustrated by an automatic
safety mechanism which returns it to the surface when it exceeds
a depth of 4.5 km (14,763 feet), authorities have adjusted the
mechanism and have sent it as deep as 4,695 metres (15,403
feet), a record.
But hopes that it might soon guide searchers to wreckage are
dwindling with no sign of the plane after six deployments
spanning 133 square kilometres (83 square miles). Footage from
the drone's sixth mission was still being analysed, the Joint
Agency Coordination Centre said on Saturday.
Malaysian acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin
Hussein said in a Twitter post that the government's Deployment
of Assets Committee was considering using more autonomous
underwater vehicles, a possible sign of growing confidence in
the vessels. He did not elaborate.
On Monday, the search coordinator, retired Air Chief Marshal
Angus Houston, said the air and surface search for debris would
likely end by midweek as the operation shifted its focus to the
But the air and surface searches have continued daily, and
on Saturday the Joint Agency Coordination Centre said up to 11
military aircraft and 12 ships would help with the day's search
covering about 50,200 square kilometres (31,000 square miles)
across three areas.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)