Jump to Content

Australian GovernmentAustralian Government print logo

Joint Agency Coordination Centre

Transcript of Press Conference, 1 April 2014

Live press conference from Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (ret'd), former Chief of the Defence Force, regarding the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Angus Houston: I am Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, retired, and I'm the Chief Coordinator of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre. On my left I have Mick Kinley, who is the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. And on my right we have Bob Armstrong, who is the regional manager here in Perth for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

I might just say a few words and then we'll take questions.

As you're aware, I was appointed to be the Chief Coordinator of the JACC on Monday, and I think many of you were at the press conference yesterday where I gave a very brief outline of what the role of the JACC would be. The role of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre is to work all agencies. We will work at the international level—obviously there are 14 countries that have a stake in this terrible set of circumstances—we'll be working with those countries on the various issues that arise.

We'll also be working at the national level to coordinate all Commonwealth agencies, and we'll also be working very closely with the state government here in West Australia. And then at the very lower level, when the families eventually come to Perth, we will be working very closely with them to ensure that they have a seamless experience, a trouble free experience, when they come to Australia.

The centre is operating in Dumas House, which is just in the immediate vicinity of this hall. And I thank the West Australian Government for giving us the use of those facilities—they're very good facilities, and they're ideal for the task that we've been given. And right now we have 20 staff who have arrived in the last 24 hours or so. So we're very much in the setting up mode, but we're doing very well thanks to my deputy, who has done a magnificent job in getting everything squared away in the first instance. And we will be working in the first instance very closely with the AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, because our main focus at the moment is obviously the search, and to ensure that we reinforce the liaison around the search to the maximum extent possible.

I was out at RAAF Base Pearce with the Prime Minister, and the Deputy Prime Minister, and I was impressed with what I saw—a number of nations working closely together to common purpose. In this region we've talked a lot about doing search and rescue together—I'm talking about the militaries of the region—but I guess this is the first time we've seen such a massive effort on a search and rescue activity, and I was deeply impressed with what I saw—the way the crews were working together, and clearly getting on very well together. And I think it's wonderful that it's going as well as it is.

Another part of our role, and my role, is to ensure that we work closely with the official representatives of the 14 countries that have a stake in this. Clearly, Malaysia is a high priority—we have the Prime Minister of Malaysia coming here tomorrow, and he will be visiting RAAF Base Pearce and other parts of Perth on Thursday, in company with our Prime Minister Tony Abbott. I will also accompany that visit, so I have an opportunity to engage with the Prime Minister of Malaysia. But I intend to have a very close relationship with the High Commissioner of Malaysia here in Australia.

Similarly, it is my intent to meet with all the High Commissioners and Ambassadors from the countries that have a stake in this. And clearly China is a very important part of that engagement that I will pursue.

In terms of the task today, we have ten military aircraft planned to go out there today, and a civilian aircraft to provide command and control. In the near future that will change a little bit in that we will see the Royal Australian Air Force deploy one of their Wedgetail E7 airborne early warning control aircraft. And they are a very capable aircraft that will assist us with de-conflicting the airspace in the search area. So that will be an addition to the force that's out there in the search area.

We also have nine ships out there at the moment, and obviously you heard that Ocean Shield, Australian Defence vessel Ocean Shield, which has the remote, the remote vehicle, and also the tower pinger on board. It's enroute for the search area at the moment. We also have a Malaysian ship that recently arrived in West Australia.

The search area is very large, it's vast, and clearly an area that the like of which we probably haven't seen before on a search and rescue operation like this. The current search area is, just to give you some context, about the size of Ireland.

In terms of the task ahead, we will continue pursuing the search with much vigour. I have to say, in my experience, and I have had a lot of experience in search and rescue over the years, this search and recovery operation is probably the most challenging one I have ever seen. And I saw that because the starting point whenever you do a search and rescue is the last known position of the vehicle or the aircraft. In this particular case the last known position was a long, long way from where the aircraft appears to have gone, and I guess our expectation is that it's crashed into the Southern Ocean. So having a good datum from which to mount the search is very challenging. We have the best experts in the world helping the Australian Maritime Safety Authority decide where the best area to search is.

But I have to say, it's very complex, it's very demanding and we don't have hard information like we might normally have. By way of comparison, if we look at the Air France disaster in the Atlantic Ocean some years ago, that aircraft was flying a well travelled route between South America and Europe. So when the aircraft was unaccounted for, the first thing was to go and search that air route in the vicinity of where the last radio calls were made, and of course within 24 hours debris was found in the ocean in two locations, two locations that were many kilometres about I might add. That provided a good starting point for the high technology work that followed to find passengers and also to find the black boxes and I might note that it took two years to find the black boxes.

So what we really need now is to find debris, wreckage from the aircraft and that will change the whole nature of our search, because we'll then be able to employ high technology to assist us to do the underwater part of the search.

I might just leave it there and my colleagues and I are ready to take your questions.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: This could drag on for a long time, but I think at this stage it's very important to pursue the leads—I'll call them leads—the evidence that is being presented to us. I think they give us a starting point. It's not the usual sort of starting point that we have, but we have a starting point and we need to pursue the search with vigour and we should continue to do that for some time to come. But inevitably, I think, if we don't find wreckage on the surface we are eventually going to have to, probably, in consultation with everybody who has a stake in this, review what we do next. One of the things that I'm always struck by was here in Australia we had one of our warships, HMAS Sydney, go down in World War II. There were eyewitnesses who saw the ship disappear over the horizon, but it took us about 60 years to find HMAS Sydney on the bottom of the ocean.

Now we've got much better technology now and that wouldn't happen in this day and age, but we are working from a very uncertain starting point. And I just wanted to reinforce that because it will take time. It's not something that's necessarily going to be resolved in the next two weeks, for example.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: We've been searching for many, many days now and as yet we have not recovered anything that has been connected to MH370.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: Well I think in the first instance the most important thing is to find some debris on the surface of the ocean. There are a lot of people, a lot of experts around the world who specialise in these things, doing computer modelling, looking at the possible profiles that the aircraft might have flown, to try and determine where it might have ended up. For example, you know, an aircraft has a very small fuel burn at high altitude, so if the aircraft was flying at say 40,000 feet; it would go a long, long way. Conversely if it was down at say 12,000 feet, it wouldn't go so far. So we don't know what altitude the aircraft was travelling at. We don't really know what speed it was going at other than, obviously we have some information that gives us some idea of the speed. So it's a very inexact science at the moment.

Would you care to say any more Mick?

MICK KINLEY: Certainly Angus. It's—while you're seeing all the evidence on the ground here with the international aviation effort with all the different nationality aircraft flying, we have a very similar big effort going into actually trying to establish where the best possibility of locating the aircraft would be. And there is an international investigation team up in Kuala Lumpur. They're in touch with experts we have here. There are ex-pilots we are talking to, there are analysts who are looking at all the oceanographic data, there is a big team of international effort going into that. Currently we believe we're looking in the place that gives us the best probability of success. As that information is refined there may be—we may move that effort, but currently that's where we are.

We have by no means exhausted that search area yet and we will continue to make every effort we can to give the people who are flying the best probability we can.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: The search area that we're using at the moment is based on the best information available to us. It's a vast search area and I think that's what is important to emphasise to you this morning. You know, essentially we do not have any precision in where the aircraft entered the water and that's why if we can find a piece of wreckage, some debris, we will then be able to narrow the search to a much smaller area and we'll be able to start, I guess, going underwater with high technology with much more precision than we could right now.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: The—as I understand it, the speed has been determined on the basis of the pings that happened over a period of time. We don't know what was happening between each ping, so…

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: We don't have any altitude data.

Question: [Indistinct] impact speed?

Angus Houston: Yes. Altitude does impact the speed because—you know, I'm getting very technical here, but fundamentally if you're at high altitude your ground speed increases quite dramatically. If you come down to a low level, your speed reduces. Just to give you some example of that, if you were flying at 200 kilometres an hour at sea level, if you go to 40,000 feet, for the same indicated airspeed you're flying twice as fast over the ground.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: Well, the last place that we know with certainty where the aircraft was was up around the Malacca Straits, and then the aircraft flew for—it appears to have flown for several hours after that. That's the problem.

Question: [Indistinct] very pessimistic [indistinct]…?

Angus Houston: No, I fully support the fact that we're out there searching the areas we're searching. We're looking where the calculations modelling suggests that the best chance of success will be, but I have to say, as somebody who has been involved in search and rescue operations many times before, that the starting point for the search is one that doesn't give us the same level of certainty that we would have if we knew, for example, where the aircraft was immediately before it was lost.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: In terms of the investigation, under the Chicago Convention, Malaysia will retain the responsibility for the investigation. Obviously in these circumstances, where the aircraft is likely to have gone in close to Australia, I think that we would be very willing to assist them and we have offered assistance in terms of investigation, and I'm sure that there will be other nations which provide assistance to Malaysia as well.

Do you want to say anything about that, or are you happy with that?

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: I don't think there is a difficulty, because we maintain a very good relationship with Malaysia. We have seen wonderful cooperation between a number of nations in prosecuting this very demanding search and recovery operation in the Southern Ocean, and I think that level of cooperation will continue beyond the search phase when we get into the recovery phase and, later, when we get into the circumstances where we are investigating the accident.

If I just take one more question, thanks.

Question: The wife of a missing passenger, Danica Weeks, she[indistinct] this morning saying that the families weren't being told enough. Are the families being told enough, and [indistinct] more families [indistinct] they told enough?

Angus Houston: Well, that's one of the principle reasons for setting up the Joint Agency Coordination Centre. I heard this morning, I got a call from Group Captain Heap, who's running the operation out at Pearce that Mrs Weeks had turned up at the gate. He is taking care of her at the moment, and I have told him to give her my phone number and also to give her assistance to get her down to us so that we can fully brief her on what we're up to and what's happening.

Question: Do you expect other families to turn up at the Base as well?

Angus Houston: No. I would ask families who need information to contact the Joint Agency Cooperation Centre, and I think you should note that we've only been set up for 24 hours, but just before you go, it's absolutely vital that if families have a concern—indeed, anybody wants information about these terrible, tragic circumstances, that they get in touch with our agency.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: Look, I'm not going to comment on that. I think that what we've got is more clarity on what was actually said in the last communication. It's more formal—the last communication was more formal than the one that was reported some weeks ago, but I don't want to focus on that. And I might just call one more question, and then…

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: Well, some of the ships that are out there are carrying helicopters, so that is an advantage. Several of the ships will have helicopters, and that provides an aerial capability that is on the ocean.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Angus Houston: I can provide that to you next time we meet. I can do that, we might put a press release out and let you know which ships are carrying helicopters, but there are quite a few helicopters there. I might…

Question: [Indistinct] based on satellite mapping. So is that [indistinct] information [indistinct]…?

Angus Houston: I'll ask…

Mick Kinley: Certainly the earlier satellite information we had was correlating with where the other information we had for the search. We shifted the search area as we advised last week based on the refinement of actually the data that we had, the knowns and the predictions about where the aircraft had gone from the international group of investigators through the ATSB. At that time, we also asked for satellite data from that area. We have not had any satellite data, I'd have to say, that has given anything better than low confidence of finding anything so far.

Angus Houston: Okay, well, thank you very much. We will be doing these on a fairly regular basis, and we'll keep you in the picture.