Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the former Chief of the ADF, ACM (ret) Angus Houston have announced that the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 will soon enter a new phase.
Speaking to media in Canberra, PM Abbott said the search of the area where pings form the aircraft’s black box were thought to have been heard with the Bluefin 21 autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) has been concluded without success. He said a new towed underwater side-scan sonar array will be brought in to continue searching the ocean floor along the vector where the aircraft last communicated with satellites shortly before it disappeared on the morning of March 8 with 239 people on board.
Mr Abbott said it was unlikely any aircraft debris would be found on the surface after so much time, and that the air search was being suspended. “By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become water-logged and sunk,” he said. “With the distances involved, all of the aircraft are operating at close to the limit of sensible and safe operation. Therefore, we are moving from the current phase to a phase which is focused on searching the ocean floor over a much larger area.”
Since search operations in Australia’s search zone commenced, 334 flights had been conducted at an average of eight per day, for a total of more than 3,000 flight hours. The search aircraft involved include seven RAAF aircraft comprising AP-3C Orions, E-7A Wedgetails and C-130J Hercules, one RNZAF P-3K2 Orion, two US Navy P-8A Poseidons, two PLAAF Il-76s, two Japanese navy P-3J Orions and a Japanese coast guard Gulfstream V, a South Korean navy P-3C Orion and a South Korean air force C-130H, and two RMAF C-130s Hercules. In addition, some 10 civil aircraft including long range corporate jets have also been involved in the search.
While the surface search was being conducted, ACM Houston said a 400 square kilometre area of the ocean floor some 1,400km northwest of Perth had been searched using the Bluefin 21. He said while the Bluefin 21 was an ideal device for that kind of search, the side scan array would allow the search to cover a wider area along the vector.
“It will take time,” he said. “I’d invite you all to just have a look at the French experience with their flight 447 – it took them two years to find the final resting place of that aircraft. We are getting into a very challenging task… probably the most demanding task in search terms that has ever been mounted to look for a lost aircraft.”
An RAAF AP-3C will remain on standby at RAAF Pearce in the event any additional short-notice search flights are required.