Ship hunting for more ‘pings’ in plane search

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The chief coordinator of the Joint Agency Coordination Center retired Chief Air Marshall Angus Houston shows a map to the media during a press conference about the ongoing search operations for wreckage and debris of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia, Monday, April 7, 2014. Houston reported the towed pinger locator deployed from the Ocean Shield has detected two signals consistent with those emitted by an in flight back box recorder, in the northern part of the current search area in the southern Indian Ocean. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

The chief coordinator of the Joint Agency Coordination Center retired Chief Air Marshall Angus Houston shows a map to the media during a press conference about the ongoing search operations for wreckage and debris of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia, Monday, April 7, 2014. Houston reported the towed pinger locator deployed from the Ocean Shield has detected two signals consistent with those emitted by an in flight back box recorder, in the northern part of the current search area in the southern Indian Ocean. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

This image provided by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre on Monday, April 7, 2014, shows a map indicating the locations of search vessels looking for signs of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. An Australian official overseeing the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane said underwater sounds picked up by equipment on an Australian navy ship are consistent with transmissions from black box recorders on a plane. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

In this April 4, 2014, photo provided by the Australian Defense Force, the Australian Defense vessel Ocean Shield tows a pinger locator in the first search for the missing flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder in the southern Indian Ocean. Ocean Shield, which is carrying high-tech sound detectors from the U.S. Navy, was investigating a sound it picked up. (AP Photo/Australian Defense Force, Lt. Kelly Lunt) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

In this April 4, 2014, photo provided by the Australian Defense Force, the Australian Defense vessel Ocean Shield tows a pinger locator in the first search for the missing flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder in the southern Indian Ocean. Ocean Shield, which is carrying high-tech sound detectors from the U.S. Navy, was investigating a sound it picked up. (AP Photo/Australian Defense Force, Lt. Kelly Lunt) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

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PERTH, Australia (AP) — Search crews hunting for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet have failed to relocate faint sounds heard deep below the Indian Ocean that officials said were consistent with a plane’s black boxes, the head of the search operation said Tuesday.

Angus Houston, the retired Australian air chief marshal who is heading the search far off Australia’s west coast, said sound locating equipment on board the Ocean Shield has picked up no trace of the signals since they were first heard late Saturday and early Sunday.

Time may have already run out to find the devices, whose locator beacons have a battery life of about a month. Tuesday marks one month since the plane vanished. Once the beacons blink off, locating the black boxes in such deep water would be an immensely difficult, if not impossible, task.

“There have been no further contacts with any transmission and we need to continue (searching) for several days right up to the point at which there’s absolutely no doubt that the batteries will have expired,” Houston said.

If, by that point, the U.S. Navy listening equipment being towed behind the Ocean Shield has failed to pick up any signals, a sub on board the ship will be deployed to try and chart out any debris on the sea floor. If the sub maps out a debris field, the crew will replace the sonar system with a camera unit to photograph any wreckage.

Houston’s comments contradicted an earlier statement from Australia’s acting prime minister, Warren Truss, who said search crews would launch the Bluefin 21 autonomous sub on Tuesday.

The towed pinger locator detected late Saturday and early Sunday two distinct, long-lasting sounds underwater that are consistent with the pings from an aircraft’s “black boxes” — the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, Houston said, dubbing the find a promising lead in the monthlong hunt for clues to the plane’s fate.

Still, officials warned it could take days to determine whether the sounds were connected to Flight 370, which vanished March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 on board.

“This is an herculean task — it’s over a very, very wide area, the water is extremely deep,” Defense Minister David Johnston said. “We have at least several days of intense action ahead of us.”

Houtson said finding the sound again was critical to narrowing down the search area before the sub can be used. If the vehicle went down now with the sparse data collected so far, it would take “many, many days” for it to cover all the places the pings might have come from.

“It’s literally crawling at the bottom of the ocean so it’s going to take a long, long time,” Houston said.

Despite the excitement surrounding the Ocean Shield’s sound detections, Houston warned that the search had previously been marred by false leads — such as ships detecting their own signals. Because of that, other ships cannot be sent in to help with the underwater search, as they may add unwanted noise.

“We’re very hopeful we will find further evidence that will confirm the aircraft is in that location,” Houston said. “There’s still a little bit of doubt there, but I’m a lot more optimistic than I was one week ago.”

Finding the black boxes is key to unraveling what happened to the Boeing 777, because they contain flight data and cockpit voice recordings that could explain why the plane veered so far off-course.

“Everyone’s anxious about the life of the

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