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Joint Agency Coordination Centre

Transcript of Press Conference, 6 April 2014

Angus Houston: Well, good morning. I'd like to start by just introducing the people who are on the stage with me today. Commodore Peter Leavy, the Taskforce Commander, on my left I have Mr Scott Constable from the Australian Safety Maritime Authority and I have Bob Armstrong from the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau. I've called this media conference to provide you with the latest information I have regarding the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. As you are aware, late yesterday reports surfaced in the Chinese press that the Chinese Ship Haixun 01 had detected electronic pulse signals in the Indian Ocean.

I issued a media release overnight confirming that I had been advised that a series of sounds had been detected by the Chinese ship with characteristics consistent with the aircraft black box. Additionally I confirmed a number of white objects which were also sighted on the surface about 90 kilometres from the detection area. I made clear however that these signals and the objects could not be verified as being related to the missing aircraft at that point in time. That remains the case. I also advised that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's rescue coordination centre had spoken to the rescue coordination centre in China and asked for many further information that might be relevant.

This morning we were contacted by the Chinese authorities and advised that Haixun 01 had late yesterday afternoon re-detected the signals for 90 seconds within just two kilometres of the original detection. This is an important encouraging lead but one which I urge you to continue to treat carefully. We are working in a very big ocean and within a very large search area and so far since the aircraft went missing, we have had very few leads which allow us to narrow the search area.

Obviously we take any reported leads in the search very seriously. That's why today, Royal Australian Air Force assets were deployed to assist in further examining the acoustic signals in the vicinity of where the Chinese ship has detected the sounds. HMS Echo and Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield, are also being directed to join Haixun 01 as expeditiously as possible to assist with either discounting or confirming the detections. Echo is the closest to the site. Ocean Shield will be delayed while she pursues an acoustic noise in her current location.

A word of caution. In the days, weeks and possibly months ahead, there may be leads such as the one I am reporting to you this morning on a regular basis. I would ask you the media to treat them as unverified until such time as we can provide an unequivocal determination. And I think that's very important, and I ask for your assistance and cooperation. I assure you that we will follow up and exhaust every credible lead we receive.

We need to keep at the forefront of our minds the families and friends of the 239 passengers who were on board the flight. Speculation and unconfirmed reports can see the loved ones of the passengers put through terrible stress and I don't want to put them under any further emotional distress at this very difficult time. Today, the international investigative team has this morning advised of a correction to the satellite data that has been used to calculate the probable flight path of MH370. The correction arises from new information about the state of the satellite itself when it received transmissions from MH370 during its flight. The effects of the correction is to raise the priority for searching the southern component of the existing search area ahead of the northern component.

In other words, we see a higher probability of importance on the southern part of the search area. The whole of the existing search area remains the most likely area that the aircraft entered the water, but based on the new advice, the southern area now has a higher priority. The air and surface searches for floating wreckage today are already in progress and will be completed as planned in the available daylight. Tomorrow's searches for floating wreckage will be adjusted to account for any new information. Up to 10 military aircraft, two civil aircraft and 13 ships will assist in today's search which will cover an area of 216,000 square kilometres.

Fortunately, the weather in the search area is expected to remain good, with a cloud base of about 2,500 feet and visibility greater than 10 kilometres. I'm now happy to take your questions. One at a time.

Question: [Indistinct] from Hong Kong Phoenix(*) TV. Just three questions. Have you got the data analysed by the experts in Australia. Second…

Angus Houston: Sorry, just which data?

Question: Have you got the signal, the data of the signal from the Chinese ship and then analysed by the other experts? Second, and the condition is needed to be fulfilled before you draw the conclusion—I mean the confirmation. The third one is when can you draw the conclusion?

Angus Houston: Well, the process is one of verification. And essentially, the information has been passed through the Chinese authorities to the Australian authorities with a request to do further investigation of the acoustic detection. So that is why HMS Echo and Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield, which has special equipment, which will be useful in these circumstances, are proceeding to the location of Haixun 01. Now, all the data that becomes available to the authorities is obviously looked at very closely, but at the moment, the data we have does not provide a means of verification. We have to do further investigation on the site itself. That is why all of these resources are being moved to that particular location.

Question: So, when can you draw that conclusion?

Angus Houston: I think we just have to let the experts take the necessary time to come up with their conclusions and, on the basis of that, we will know whether it is a credible contact or not. You've all seen how we handled the visual search over several weeks. When we first started the search, there were many, many leads. Some of them looked quite promising. We sent ships to pick up the stuff that had been identified on the surface of the ocean and step by step we looked at it and then we couldn't find a connection with MH370 so that one was discounted.

And so far, none of the visual contacts that we've had and the material we have recovered from the ocean has been, I guess, linked to MH370. We'll go through a similar process when we go underwater. Underwater, the environment is quite difficult. There are lots of occasions when noises will be transmitted over long distances, depending on the temperature layers in the water and so on. So there's a complexity about working underwater that makes the task quite complex. We have the necessary expertise to be able to operate there, and obviously we will have the expertise on land supporting the efforts of the people who are doing the work at sea.

Question: Based on your professional knowledge, if it is confirmed that a signal comes from the black box, how difficult would it be to recover the black box in that area, in this area? And if it is confirmed, will you announce the result immediately or do you have to wait for the confirmation in consultation with the other four countries, will you announce the result together?

Angus Houston: The water in which the Haixun 01 is working at the moment is very, very deep. I think it's in the order of 4,500 metres. And that is incredibly deep; 4.5 kilometres straight down. So any recovery operation is going to be incredibly challenging and very demanding and will take a long period of time. That's if there is anything down there. I mean, first of all, we've got to establish the fact that there is something down there. We are a long way from making that conclusion. That's why we need HMS Echo and the Australian Defence vessel Ocean Shield to come to the location, because they have special equipment that can help us make the judgment whether there is anything down there. But I think the fact that we have had two detections, two acoustic events, in that location provides some promise which requires a full investigation of the location.

Question: Just to clarify just what you were talking about then, the two detections in the area; so the boat picked up something, then came back and found the second one in a separate area, is that correct—two kilometres away? Is that what you were saying? And further, just can you expand on the Ocean Shield, what it [indistinct].

Angus Houston: The first detection was about, 36 hours ago, not last night, the night before. And I believe it was just a quick acoustic detection and then nothing. The Haixun 01 stayed in the area investigating the site at which this had occurred. And yesterday afternoon, Perth time, there was another acoustic detection. That was less than two kilometres from the original detection. Now the fact that we have two detections, they are slightly apart in terms of distance, but in an ocean that size, two kilometres is not a large distance. And of course, they are separated in time over a period of 24 hours. The second transmission was—or should I say acoustic event, was for about 90 seconds. So we obviously have to investigate it fully and we will do that, and we will let you know at the completion of the process what the outcome is. I mean, we are not going to hide anything from any of you.

Question: If I could ask you how long do you believe it will take for them HMS Echo and the Ocean Shield to be able to get into position and investigate this further? And is this location within that southern sector that you have now defined as being a more credible lead as to where the flight went down?

Angus Houston: In answer to your last question, the area is in the high probability area, yes. The second thing is, in terms of how long it will take the two ships to get there, HMAS Echo is closer, she will get there, I would think, fairly quickly. I'll take advice from Commodore Leavy, but in terms of the Ocean Shield, she is in the process of exploiting another acoustic event which we need to look at to determine if there is anything in that. So this is a painstaking process and if we get any lead whatsoever, we investigate it, and if it is significant, we continue to investigate it until such time as we say, well, no, that is not connected to MH370.

So, it is something that takes time. We are dealing with very deep water. We are dealing with an environment where sometimes you can get false indications. There are lots of noises in the ocean and sometimes the acoustic equipment can rebound, echo, if you like, and all sorts of issues around that. Peter, would you like to say anything more?

Peter Leavy: Just in terms of the timing, we believe HMS Echo is approximately 14 hours from that position. And as Air Chief Marshal Houston just mentioned, Ocean Shield is herself investigating another acoustic detection that she's made. And once she's completed that activity, if it's decided to move her down, and that proves to be not the beacon up there, it will be approximately two hours to recover her towed pinger equipment. It's approximately 24 hours for her to steam down there and another two to three hours to redeploy the equipment. So it will be over a day before Ocean Shield is there.

Question: We're talking a matter of days before both ships are positioned to be able to either verify or discount? Not talking hours, we are talking days.

Peter Leavy: That's correct. We are talking days, that's correct.

Question: Can you describe the other event that Ocean Shield is investigating?

Peter Leavy: This is only happened within the last 90 minutes. We heard a report back from Ocean Shield, from the towed ping locator operators on board there, that they had picked up a detection. It is very, very early days and the note of caution that Air Chief Marshall Houston mentioned before I would reiterate, they are still investigating that. We are not yet sure whether she'll be tasked to remain there, if it's promising she will, to investigate that particular emission—or detection. If it's not, then I expect she will be re-tasked down towards the Haixun 01 position. I would imagine it would take most of today to actually resolve that location up where Ocean Shield's position is.

As you can appreciate, she has 6000 metres of tow behind her, so to turn around and go back over an area of water again, it takes quite some time for the ship to physically reverse course. So I wouldn't expect until mid afternoon at the absolute earliest as decision on whether she will relocate.

Question: So much has been made, Mr Houston, of the race against time to retrieve the black box, given the complications with battery life and so on. Obviously this is a really promising couple of detections, but obviously retrieving it before the signal stops, is that something you have considered?

Angus Houston: Absolutely. This is day 30 of the search. And the advertised time for the life of the batteries in the beacon are 30 days. Now, sometimes they last for several days beyond that, say eight to 10 days beyond that, but we are running out of time in terms of terms of the battery life. You are right.

Question: The detection that you mentioned, the most recent, is that not being treated as seriously as the other—as the Chinese detection?

Angus Houston: No, not at all. I mean we have two—well, we have three separate acoustic events—two with Haixun 01, and we have another one with Ocean Shield. We are treating each of them very seriously. We need to ensure before we leave any of those areas of detection, that there is no connection to MH370. So we will work in those locations until we can say yes, or no. So we treat every lead that has any sort of promise, very seriously and we don't leave it until we have exhausted all avenues of investigation.

Question: So will more resources go to the second site, then, where Ocean Shield is?

Angus Houston: Well, Ocean Shield is probably the best equipped of all the ships out there to investigate this sort of acoustic occurrence. She obviously has the towed pinger, which has just been described to you by Commodore Leavy, but she also has a remotely operated vehicle, which is highly capable, and we will see where it goes. And I'm sure, as the Commodore said, we are going to be looking at several hours, maybe a couple of days, before that one might be resolved. But as soon as—if that one completes without verification, it will then be tasked to go down to Haixun 01's position. And if in the meantime other leads come up, we will prosecute all of them. We will pursue these leads to their conclusion.

Question: How far apart [inaudible]?

Angus Houston: Well, it's 24 hours—they're a long way apart, actually—300 miles—nautical miles.

Question: So you cannot be sure about the signal frequency of the detection of Ocean Shield?

Angus Houston: Well, this is late-breaking news. I thought it was important that we are totally transparent with you. I just want you to know that the search is a dynamic thing. Things are happening all the time. And this broke this morning, this broke, what, an hour ago.

Peter Leavy: And hour ago, Sir.

Angus Houston: And I thought it was very important that you be informed about it, because it's like the visual search, we are dealing with identification of whether an acoustic event has anything to do with the downing of the aircraft and does it represent that the aircraft went into the sea at this location or not. And it's the same with the way we prosecute the visual search. The visual search is ongoing. Ships are going to have a look at the white objects that were found in the sea yesterday, and they will be looked at closely and again to see if the object could have been aboard MH370? Or is it something else? And we've done that continuously over the last 30 days, with all the visual objects that have been recovered from the scene.

Sorry, one—can I just, yeah…

Question: Just want to know, the signal detected by the [indistinct], it's really belongs to the flight, that means the flight should be along there too?

Angus Houston: Sorry?

Question: I mean is the signal detected by the ship must really belongs to the flight?

Angus Houston: Well, that's the point. That's what we are investigating. What we are trying to do is establish whether we have an acoustic event. We have a transmission that has been received by Haixun 01. The job now is to determine what is the significance of that event—does it confirm or deny the presence of the aircraft locator on the bottom of the ocean? That's what we are doing.


Question: The frequency that you stated earlier, if it is transmitting at that frequency, what other possible sources could there be?

Angus Houston: What we've got here are fleeting, fleeting acoustic events. The one the night before last, lasted just a very short period of time. The one yesterday afternoon, 14—I think it was 15:47 in the afternoon, was for 90 seconds. That's all we have got. It's not a continuous transmission. If you get close to the device, we should be receiving it for a longer period of time than just a fleeting encounter. But we have got a transmission, we must investigate it and that's the way we work.

Question: One more thing, you were talking about a satellite discrepancy earlier. Does that satellite discrepancy, am I right in thinking you were talking about going back to the southern ocean with those searches, to the original area, or in the area of the Chinese vessel?

Angus Houston: No, the search area doesn't change at all, but what we get out of the data, the satellite—this is the Inmarsat satellite, the characteristics of that were such that on reanalysing the data that has been obtained, some other conclusions have come up which slightly change the possible profile of the aeroplane. And they are based on the fact that there might be a slight difference in the air speed that has been calculated. And we're talking programs the aircraft—perhaps the aircraft went a little bit faster than had originally been calculated on the basis of analysing the satellite data.

Question: So it would be further north.

Angus Houston: It would be a little bit further south. And that's why we are going into the southern part of the area rather than the northern part. The search area doesn't change, so it's not a big change, not the sort of changes we had early in the operation, but the area of highest probability, we think, is now probably in the southern part of the area, pretty close to where Haixun 01 is operating. And that's why we are so very interested in the two acoustic encounters that Haixun 01 has had.

Question: Was Haixun 01 specifically in the area that had been tasked to it, or was it in its own area unilaterally. And secondly, was Australia aware of this on Friday and today and are you disappointed that it was made public before?

Angus Houston: Look were we have ended up, you know, on a search like this with journalists travelling on ships, aeroplanes, information will come out which basically has to be responded to. And I guess that's exactly what happened in these circumstances. I accept the reality of that. In terms of where Haixun 01 is operating, it is operating in a location that is central to our interests at the moment. Okay? It's in the search area we are prosecuting right now. One more question.

Question: You can now confirm the frequency—now confirm the frequency of the signal detected by the Ocean Shield? It's not 37.5…?

Angus Houston: No, we found out one hour ago that Ocean Shield had found something. We do not have any detail on the encounter at this stage. We just know that there has been an acoustic detection by Ocean Shield which has highly sophisticated equipment, and the word I have is that it's something that needs to be investigated. So until the investigation is—well, is under way, and complete, I'm not prepared to speculate on what it might be or what it might not be. It's very important that as we go through these leads, we avoid speculation and that's what I ask all of you to do, because we have the best expertise in the world out there, the best equipment in the world out there, and we need the experts to do their job and when they have finished their job, we'll come back and tell you what the outcome was. And I have undertaken to do that…

Question: One more question, please.

Angus Houston: Sorry, one at a time.

Question: Is the ROV equipment going to be deployed by Ocean Shield today?

Angus Houston: Well, we don't know, the one thing that we do in terms of something like this—I'm coordinating all of the activities—all of the activities—but the rescue coordination centre, which is part of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority is controlling the search. Now, the worst thing that could happen is if I reach in and say do this, do that. We have very professional, very highly qualified expert people running the search. They need to be left to do that. We also have, under the command of Commodore Leavy, an international force of vessels that are well equipped to go out there and do the search—very professional people from all of the nations involved—and they are doing a great job.

We just have to be realistic to realise that this is a dynamic environment and particularly when we go underwater, things are going to take time. And that's just a reality of the environment that we are dealing with. One last question, this lady hasn't had a question.

Question: [Inaudible] yesterday, it appeared that when the first pings, acoustic events were detected, at that time the Chinese ship was outside of the search [indistinct] area…

Angus Houston: Okay, yeah.

Question: Is that [indistinct]?

Angus Houston: It was on the edge, yeah.

Question: Were authorities made aware of the find?

Angus Houston: Well, which one? The first one? Well, I would have to take that on notice, because we are going back a fair way. But we became aware of it fairly quickly because essentially there was a journalist aboard and we heard about it. Now, almost at the same time, I was informed by the Chinese Government that they had found something. So these things happened more or less at the same time. And then the one that we are reporting today, the second one, we were formally informed about that quite some time ago. So that was—that came through in absolutely the normal way and I'm completely comfortable with that. We have been working very closely with all of the Governments and forces involved to basically get the best coordination and consultation going that we can. I spent quite a bit of time with our Chinese friends working on the best way to consult, because clearly language is sometimes an issue, and we are actually going to perhaps enhance the number of liaison people up in the coordination centre and we will be getting a Chinese liaison officer into our centre to assist with the coordination of the search and making sure that nothing falls through the cracks.

Question: Do you believe China is sharing all of its intelligence?

Angus Houston: China's sharing everything that's relevant to this search.

Question: [Indistinct] detected the first acoustic event, was it not a couple of hundred kilometres out of the search zone where it was supposed to be on Friday and has it not since been redefined after this discovery?

Angus Houston: Scott—how, where was it? Look, perhaps we'll be having another press conference, probably in the next couple of days. I'll come back to you on that.

Question: I appreciate that. It's a fairly critical question today.

Angus Houston: Yeah. But let me just say, though, China has seven ships out there. That's by far the largest fleet of ships out there. They are out there looking for this aircraft, and at the moment, the most promising lead appears to be the one associated with the Haixun 01. I think we should be focusing on the positives a. I'm very satisfied with the consultation, the coordination that we are building with our Chinese friends. I spent two hours last night with the Chinese ambassador and we worked out the best way to effect that coordination and consultation for my responsibilities. I'm very, very happy about that. So we need to concentrate on that, not on was it here, was it there. One more question, and then I'm going.

Question: [Indistinct] the Australian and Chinese vessels received the three signals without finding any debris above water, does it suggest that the plane went into the water in a whole(*) piece?

Angus Houston: Look, again, we are speculating. We can't speculate. We have got to work on reality, and at this stage we have no idea how the aircraft went into the water—did it go in, glide into the water, did it go in vertically. We don't know. That's something that we shouldn't speculate about at this time. Thank you very much. I'll be back with you in the not too distant future. And please, please come next time. Thank you.