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Joint Agency Coordination Centre

Transcript of Press Conference, 4 April 2014

Angus Houston: Let me just first introduce the people who will be assisting me and you this morning. On my left I have Commodore Peter Leavy, who commands the Joint Task Force 658. On my right, Mr Scott Constable from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. And Mr Bob Armstrong from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. Over on the left we have Captain Matthews who is from the US Navy and is an expert on the underwater detection equipment. I don't intend to involve him in the press conference but if anybody wants some technical detail about that equipment, he is available for one-on-one interviews after this press conference. From now on I intend to hold regular media briefings in regard to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in this location.

Let me start with today's search. Up to 10 military planes, four civil jets and nine ships will assist in today's search. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has determined a search area of about 217,000 square kilometres. That area is 1700 kilometres north-west of Perth. Today's search area will focus on three areas within the same broad vicinity. The first aircraft departed for the search area at 6:00 Western Standard Time this morning. A total of 26 State Emergency Service volunteers from Western Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria will work as air observers on three of the civil aircraft. The other civil aircraft will operate as a communications relay. The weather forecast for today's search is fair with visibility at about 10 kilometres and a cloud base between 1000 and 2000 feet.

The Royal Australian Navy and Royal Navy have today commenced a sub-surface search for emissions from the black box pinger from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Using the Towed Pinger Locater from the United States Navy on Australian defence vessel Ocean Shield and a similar capability on HMAS Echo, the two ships will search a single 240 kilometre track converging on each other. And of course, if you want to get into more detail about that I have the Commodore here to take any questions on that subject. The Australian Anzac class frigate, HMAS Perth, has been tasked to assist with the search for the missing aircraft. HMAS Perth will take approximately four days to reach the search area and, of course, as I mentioned yesterday, the Malaysian frigate Lekiu will arrive in the search area at 18:00 tomorrow.

As you are aware, Prime Minister Najib visited Western Australia yesterday. I briefed him in relation to the establishment of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre. Prime Minister Najib announced that Australia has accepted Malaysia's invitation to participate as an accredited representative in the investigation and we will continue to work closely together to draw up a comprehensive formal agreement.

Let me tell you a little bit more about that. Under the Chicago convention, the accident investigation into the disappearance of MH370 is the responsibility of Malaysia. However, to support its investigation, Malaysia requested that Australia lead the search for the missing aircraft and participate in the investigation as an accredited representative. An accredited representative is a full participant in the investigation so that additional skills and expertise can be provided to the investigation team. Australia agreed both to lead the search and, as an accredited representative, to provide all necessary support to the Malaysian investigation. The United States, the United Kingdom, and China are also accredited representatives.

An Australian team of four senior investigators is currently in Kuala Lumpur with backgrounds in aircraft operations, aircraft maintenance, aeronautical engineering and human factors. This team also ensures that relevant investigation information, such as the complex calculations of the aircraft's likely flight path, is fed into the search strategies and the tasking of search aircraft and ships.

Senior officials of Malaysia and Australia are currently drawing up a comprehensive agreement regarding Australia's role in the search and the broader investigation. This agreement will set out such matters as the critical decision points in the search, the handling of accident victims, the custody and analysis of the aircraft wreckage and the downloading of information from any flight recorders that may be recovered.

Yesterday, I advised that based on the continuing flow of information, the search area was adjusted to move the area a little bit further north. There is nothing unusual about this. Day by day, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau continues to refine the area where the aircraft may have entered the water based on continuing ground-breaking and multidisciplinary technical analysis of the satellite communications and aircraft performance passed from the international air crash investigative team. I might add these are experts, leading experts in the field in the world today. This means the search area will be adjusted on a semi- regular basis.

I would also like to let you know that yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with the CEO of Malaysia Airlines. We had a very constructive meeting and I am pleased with the way arrangements are progressing.

The West Australian Government is also working to ensure all the necessary arrangements to support the families are being put into place. The West Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, has conveyed to me the importance he places on hosting the families and the very good assistance that he intends to provide to them when they arrive in Perth.

On Monday, I was asked a question at the press conference as to which ships are carrying helicopters. Let me just provide you with those details now. HMAS Toowoomba has an S-70-B2 Sikorsky Seahawk embarked. HMAS Success has an MRH-90 helicopter embarked. The Malaysian frigate Lekiu has a Super Lynx 300 embarked. The People's Liberation Army Navy has deployed six military ships in the search area. One is a Landing Helicopter Dock that has up to six helicopters embarked. The Chinese polar supply vessel has an embarked helicopter.

That concludes my introductory remarks. We are now ready to take any questions that you might have.

Yes.

Question: Did you get any information from Malaysia which is about the case has been turned into a criminal investigation. Especially it is recorded some [inaudible] has been claimed by some explosive devices. Did you get any information about that?

Angus Houston: We are focused very much on the search for the downed aircraft and to make all the necessary arrangements to facilitate that search and what might follow the search when the aircraft is found. I've seen the reporting from Malaysia about criminal investigations but it's not relevant to the work that we have to do here in Australia at the moment in regard to the search and recovery operation.

Question: The direction of the investigation is there is a criminal case or non-criminal? Any differences in the direction of the investigation?

Angus Houston: I might suggest that I think that's an avenue that you should perhaps pursue with the authorities in Malaysia because they are the ones who are looking at these aspects of investigation.

Question: Thank you so much for giving those helicopter numbers, we appreciate that. In terms of actually getting to that 240 kilometres, why is the Towed Pinger Locator being launched in that area specifically. I know HMS Echo's also involved. Why pick that area?

Angus Houston: Well, that area has been picked because on the basis of the analysis and, as you know, it's on the basis of the six hours of pings, we have the exchange between the satellite, the Inmarsat satellite and the aircraft on an hourly basis. And then there was an additional ping where we think the aircraft might have run out of fuel. On that, and on an incredible amount of work that has gone on in terms of how the aircraft might have been flown, how it might have been performed, a lot of simulation work by various people, the best—the area of highest probability as to where the aircraft might have entered the water is the area where the underwater search will commence.

And obviously that's what must be done and it's on the basis of data that only arrived very recently and it's the best data that is available, so it's calculated data. As you know, the last known position of the aircraft was up near the Malacca Straits and we are in an area many thousands of kilometres south of that position. So I think it's important that we let that proceed and hopefully, hopefully the calculations are putting us into about the right area.

Just hold—do you want to add anything to that?

Unidentified speaker: No. That's…

Angus Houston: Yes, Paul.

Angus Houston: We've heard the term groundbreaking used a couple of times in the past few days. That suggests ground has been broken on this. Can you give us a bit more detail what ground has been broken?

Angus Houston: Well, I think ATSB are probably the people that are best placed. But let me start. Before this aircraft disappeared, everything was turned off. The only thing that was available to the investigators and the searchers was the pings which were an exchange between the Inmarsat satellite and the aircraft. Those pings occurred on an hourly basis. There was no indication of airspeed, no indication of altitude, very little other data other than that. Now, what has happened since then is the analysts have taken that data, they've developed it, they've taken I suppose the calculations into consideration, they have looked at how the aircraft might have performed, the likely flight path, the speed at which it might have been flown, the altitude at which it might have been flown and all of that has been fused to try and determine where the aircraft might have entered the water.

And of course, the other thing that you must weigh into this is how much fuel was aboard the aircraft and so on. Fuel burn and so on. So it's very complex and we've had the world's best experts in this area analyse the data and, over a period of time, that data has been refined. I think we've probably got to the end of the process of analysis and my expectation is that we are into a situation where the data we've got is the data we've got and we'll proceed on the basis of that.

Now, what is so different about this search is that most times everything I've ever been involved in, you usually have a really good starting point, which is not too distant from the area of search. In this particular case, the last known position is several thousand kilometres north of the likely search area. So, we are moving into an area we've never been before and may I say, I think there's groundbreaking analytical work that has been simply extraordinary and it gives us, I think, some hope that we will eventually find the aircraft in the area that we are searching.

Angus Houston: What is the cost on this mission?

Angus Houston: Well, I might come back to you in a future media conference because it's a lot of money and I wouldn't be able to put a definitive estimate to you at this stage. Perhaps we can have a look at that and come back to you at a later stage. But…

Angus Houston: Well, I think at a future conference I might be able to give you some indicator of how much…

Angus Houston: Are you planning to put any more [indistinct] because…

Angus Houston: More sorry?

Question: More Towed Pinger Indicators because the area is large and tiny, tiny [indistinct] do you think there could be more Towed Pingers [indistinct] go in the water?

Angus Houston: Well—we've got the Towed Pinger on the Ocean Shield which is the Australian vessel with US Navy equipment, the Towed Pinger, but HMAS Echo, the British ship, also has some fairly sophisticated underwater search gear and we've got a couple of other devices that can assist with the search which can be dropped from the air. In terms of Towed Pingers, I don't think we would be able to get another one in a hurry. These are in very scarce supply and at this stage there are no plans to bring another one in.

Angus Houston: So how much time do you think you have before the black box locator actually dies out?

Angus Houston: Well, on best advice, the locator beacon will last about a month before it ceases its transmissions. So we are now getting pretty close to the time when it might expire.

Question: Are we getting close to the point where a surface search is becoming futile and we need to rely on an underwater search?

Angus Houston: [Inaudible] a search for a good deal more time. Because, the break we—if we find a piece of wreckage on the surface or some evidence on the surface that the aircraft went into the water nearby, that gives us a much better datum to start the underwater search than we've currently got. I mean the datum we've got is the best available on the evidence that's available right now. But if we were to find debris on the surface, that enables us to perhaps, with the calculation of the ocean drift and all the rest of it, we might be able to come up with a much more definitive datum with which to start the underwater search or continue the underwater search.

Question: Can I just ask how likely is it to find something so close to the surface?

Question: Is it fair to say you are no longer looking for these big things?

Angus Houston: No, I—we use everything that we can to basically try and find the aircraft and wreckage in the ocean. We do— you've got to use everything that's available and the satellites continue to be a source of information. But thus far, they haven't found anything that can be connected to MH370.

Question: Mr Houston, are you confident you have all the intelligence information you need, have you got anything you need from all the countries involved, including Indonesia?

Angus Houston: Absolutely. The co-operation— I've never seen co-operation as effective as what we are seeing at the moment. Eight nations out there working as one team to common purpose because we need to find this downed aircraft and we need to do everything necessary to get closure on this particular matter.

Question: Does that include information that is normally classified from countries like Indonesia?

Angus Houston: Well, the information we're getting is giving us a lot of good evidence and as I mentioned earlier on the work the investigative team is doing. That's actually the most crucial material or the most crucial evidence that's been being presented. The Indonesians have been helpful. Everybody has been helpful. Everybody wants to find that downed aircraft and I don't think anybody is withholding anything in terms of what needs to be done to do the job. I might…

Question: Do you see the search area being reduced at all, being narrowed at all in the next few days. We are still talking vast areas. Can you see it reducing by 50 per cent over the next few days?

Angus Houston: I would not make a prediction because the search area will be adjusted as required on the basis of the evidence that becomes available. And I might add that's what happens on every search and recovery, search and rescue operation, you start with a bigger area and then when you get evidence and you start to be able to refine the search area to a smaller and smaller area and eventually you find the target, whatever that happens to be. One more question and I will depart.

Question: Air France. Is that case comparable to this one in terms of the mystery surrounding it at the moment?

Angus Houston: There are many similarities, but I would state categorically it's different because the wreckage from the Air France aircraft was found within 24 hours of the aircraft being lost. There were two separate debris fields, 80 kilometres apart and, of course, two bodies were also found. Now, this particular set of circumstances, we've gone almost a month, we've found absolutely nothing. The other thing that's quite different about this, airliners fly air routes, so if you lose an aircraft, the first thing you do is have a search along the air route and usually that will get you the evidence you need to enable the rest of your search operations. Indeed that's what happened in the Air France circumstances. One more question and that's it. Yes.

Question: Does Australia have all the investigation data from Malaysia and from other relevant companies as well as Boeing and Rolls-Royce and can you release the information or who has the right to release all this information amid all the confusion of the search location as here?

Angus Houston: I mentioned when I talked about the investigation, I mentioned the nations that were involved in the investigation. We are getting all the information from that team, currently based in Kuala Lumpur. They also have internet or computer links to all other agencies in the world who might be able to help in these circumstances, including Boeing, Rolls-Royce, everybody who might be able to help us, and Malaysia in particular, to determine what might have happened here. So there is no problem with the supply of information and ladies and gentlemen, I just would tell you, we are giving you everything that we have available and we will continue to do so. You have my commitment to that.

We will engage you with regular briefings as long as this search continues and, indeed, if we find something beyond that. Clearly it's very important that we all know what's going on. So with those words, I will leave you to it. And if anybody wants to engage Captain Matthews, I must insist it be one-on-one. You should see Andrea and she will arrange it for you. Thank you very much.