Transcript of Press Conference, 14 April 2014
Angus Houston: I'll start by introducing those behind me. Commodore Peter Leavy, who's the Task Force Commander of all the Australian Defence assets that are out there involved in the search for MH370. On my right we have Mr Scott Constable from AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and over here, Bob Armstrong from ATSB, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
I would like to update you on the latest developments regarding the search for missing flight MH370. As you are aware, there have been no confirmed signal detections since last Tuesday night Perth time. Today is day 38 of the search. The guaranteed shelf-life of the batteries on the aircraft black boxes is 30 days. Despite the lack of further detections, the four signals previously acquired taken together constitute the most promising lead we have in the search for MH370. We need to pursue this lead as far as possible.
Analysis of the four signals has allowed the provisional definition of a reduced and manageable search area on the ocean floor. The experts have, therefore, determined that the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield will cease searching with the Towed Pinger Locator later today and deploy the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, Bluefin-21, as soon as possible. The Bluefin-21 is equipped with side scan sonar. Once deployed, it will begin searching the sea floor in the vicinity of the detected signals.
Each mission conducted by the Bluefin-21 will take a minimum of 24 hours to complete. It will take the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle two hours to get down to the bottom of the ocean. It will then be on task for 16 hours. It will then take two hours to return to the surface and four hours to download and analyse the data collected. The first mission will see Bluefin-21 cover an area of approximately five kilometres by eight kilometres, an area of 40 square kilometres.
The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle in sight scan sonar mode transmits an active pulse which produces a high resolution, three dimensional map of the sea floor. The deployment of the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle has the potential to take us a further step towards visual identification since it offers a possible opportunity to detect debris from the aircraft on the ocean floor.
As I have said before, aircraft wreckage needs to be visually identified before we can say with certainty that this is the final resting place of MH370. I would caution you against raising hopes that the deployment of the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle will result in the detection of the aircraft wreckage. It may not. However, this is the best lead we have and it must be pursued vigorously. Again, I emphasise that this will be a slow and painstaking process.
In another development, I can report Ocean Shield detected an oil slick yesterday evening in her current search area. A sample of about two litres has been collected and it will be a number of days before it can be landed ashore and conclusively tested. I stress the source of the oil is yet to be determined but the oil slick is approximately 5,500 metres down-wind and down-sea from the vicinity of the detections picked up by the Towed Pinger Locator on Ocean Shield.
A few words about today's search. Up to 11 military aircraft, one civil aircraft and 15 ships will assist in today's search. HMS Echo is working in the area supporting Ocean Shield, providing oceanographic support and analysis. The planned visual search area is about 47,644 square kilometres. The centre of the search area lies approximately 2,200 kilometres north-west of Perth. The air and surface search for floating material will be completed in the next two to three days in the area where the aircraft most likely entered the water.
The chances of any floating material being recovered have greatly diminished and it will be appropriate to consult with Australia's partners to decide the way ahead later this week. The weather forecast for today is south-easterly winds with possible showers, sea swells of up to 1.5 metres and visibility of three to five kilometres.
I'm now happy to take your questions.
Question: Mr Houston, Will Ripley, CNN. Aside from the Bluefin-21, will you be deploying any other underwater resources at any point down the road to speed up the search process or is that the only asset that's going to be used right now?
Angus Houston: That's the only asset that is available now, and I would stress again, the capability required is to be able to go down to 4,500 metres and this vehicle is limited once the water gets deeper than that. So we would have to get another vehicle, if the water were to be deeper still. But at the moment, it looks like the Bluefin-21 is more than adequate for the task.
Question: [Indistinct] how large is the search area you have to cover with the Bluefin-21. First step is 40 square kilometres.
Angus Houston: That's right.
Question: How many square kilometres does it need to cover?
Angus Houston: Well, the search area, because we have got one vehicle and we go mission for mission for mission, we will adapt the search area depending on what we find on the bottom of the ocean. So over time, each time the vehicle goes down, it will have a defined search area. Now that search area is obviously—the broader search area, is obviously a little larger than that. But what we do is we start from the best datum and we work outwards from there.
And it's really up to the people on the spot to determine where the best area is to go next. It's a bit different from when you've got a large number of aircraft, a large number of ships, you define a large area for search. In this particular case, we've got four detections. We start where we think the best location is, that's the datum for the start of the search and we go outwards from there.
Question: We heard yesterday it was 40 by 50 kilometres. Is that the area you are working within so do you do blocks within that area?
Angus Houston: Well, it just depends what we find on the ocean floor and I think it's very important to give flexibility to the people who are doing the work. They're the experts and they will determine where they need to go next and obviously that sort of search area you have indicated, if we don't find anything, we go further out and look a little bit further afield. At the moment, I think the first mission will be quite an intense search in the most likely spot that has been determined from the analysis that has been done thus far. Of course we get a lot more data from the mission that provides further information to further define where we go next.
Question: [Indistinct] Are you telling us that you believe the battery in the data recorder is now flat? And can you give us an idea—the Bluefin is a long shot, isn't it?
Angus Houston: Well, I would say that day 38, if you remember when we had a briefing, it seems like a long time ago now, but we said 30 days shelf-life and possibly out to 40 days and then the batteries will almost certainly be totally expired. We haven't had a single detection in six days. So I guess it's time to go underwater. Our concept always was that if we did get an area that we can identify from an acoustic search, that eventually we would go underwater. That's why the Ocean Shield is carrying the Towed Pinger, that was to get the initial detections, and then to use the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle to go down and investigate what might have happened. Now,—or where the transmissions might be coming from.
Now, you might recall that one of those transmissions that was analysed by AJAAC, the Australian Joint Acoustic Analysis Centre, a naval agency that works with our submarines all the time, a lot of expertise, they have analysed and reanalysed and, indeed, all of the stuff that we've been analysing has been analysed again and again. And on the latest advice from them, the original assessment that the signal that was received essentially had the characteristics of a man-made signal that was very similar to what you might expect from a black box recorder.
So I think this is something that must be investigated. It's the best lead we've got after 38 days of searching and I guess it's as it is and I would not term it a long-shot, I'd term it, as somebody who's been in search and rescue operations a lot over the years, I would determine it as a promising lead that needs to be prosecuted until we can either confirm or discount and then if we confirm, great. If we discount, we then decide where we're going to go next. And that's the way it's done. Believe me, that's the business of search and recovery, search and rescue.
Question: Can we assume then…
Angus Houston: This gentleman here was…
Question: [Indistinct] Out of the area of 40 square kilometres [indistinct] is that based on the signal received by the Ocean Shield or is it based on some other information? And how many days will Bluefin-21 cover this particular area?
Angus Houston: Well, I go back to where we were a couple of weeks ago. This underwater search area was—quite a large underwater search area was determined on the basis of the exchanges between the satellite—the Inmarsat satellite—and the aircraft, the handshakes. And you might remember we had the seventh ping. This area that we're in is under where the seventh ping occurred. Now, after that analysis was done, that enabled the deployment of Ocean Shield with the Pinger Locator and she went into that area and she received transmissions from the deep. That is the basis—the four transmissions taken together are the basis for the underwater search area. Okay?
Question: What do we know about the terrain down there? Have you learned? Is there silt? What are the conditions? Is it mountainous? Is it flat? What do we know about this area that you're going to search?
Angus Houston: Well, I think this is an area that is new to man. We obviously have a great asset in the oceanographic vessel, HMS Echo. That's a state of the art oceanographic ship. It has equipment that can assist in mapping the ocean bottom there. But essentially on the sort of imagery I've seen, it's not sharply mountainous or anything. It's more flat and almost rolling. But we understand from other work that was done some years ago, that that part of the Indian Ocean has a lot of silt on the bottom. And if we have silt on the bottom, that can be quite layered, quite deep and that will complicate how things are on the bottom.
And of course again, with the Autonomous Vehicle going down, we are going to gather more information about the characteristics of the search area we're dealing with. And that's why we are not defining this area, that area, or so on. We are actually gathering information about the search environment all of the time and that's factored into the analysis that the subject matter experts make when they determine where you go next.
Question: Mr Houston?
Angus Houston: Yes.
Question: With the time that's elapsed and given the [indistinct], what's the likelihood the oil slick [indistinct] from another ship?
Angus Houston: Well, again, it's a lead. This is what the business is all about. You find something; you then basically investigate it. We've got an oil slick, we will investigate it. First of all, we'll test it. We've got the position located. It's very close to where the transmissions are coming from and we'll investigate it and that will take a little bit of time given that we are in the middle of the Indian Ocean and we can't do the analysis of the slick out at sea.
We don't think it's from the ships. So where is it from? What is it and so on. So it's another lead to pursue and something that must be investigated until we either confirm or discount it in exactly the same way we've handled the vast amount of material that has been gathered during the visual search. We look at it; we have discounted all of it thus far.
Question: Could we find that the answer [inaudible] go down as deep as the ocean floor and is there anything else that can go deeper if it turns out that the ocean floor is deeper than 4000 kilometres?
Angus Houston: Well, the area we're searching we know that it's probably around 4,500 metres. In fact from the imagery I've seen, most of the search area is on the right side of 4,500 for the operation of the vehicle. But I must stress it is at the limit of its capability as soon as it gets to 4,500 metres. It can't go any deeper than that.
Question: But is there another vehicle [indistinct]?
Angus Houston: Yep. Yeah, and essentially there are vehicles that can go a lot deeper than that. They are usually much larger vehicles; they do recovery as well and obviously those sorts of possibilities will be looked at—well, they have be. They are being looked at as we speak. But a lot will depend on the outcome of what we find when we go down and take a look.
Question: Can you clarify some of the timeframes that we're talking about. You said the Towed Pinger Locator now has stopped searching?
Angus Houston: Yep.
Question: Or when exactly will the Bluefin be deployed? Are you talking today…
Angus Houston: Yup. Yeah.
Question: …or tomorrow, to clarify?
Angus Houston: Well the first thing is that we've got the Bluefin-21 and the Towed Pinger Locator hosted on the same ship, Ocean Shield. They cannot be operated simultaneously. So the Commander on the spot had to decide which device he was going to use in the first instance. And clearly, because there was still the possibility of picking up transmissions, even though we got past the 30-day point, we got those transmissions, probably it seems like 10 days ago now, and we wanted to try and get more transmissions. Now the fact that we haven't had more transmissions, well, could be a number of things, but one of the more probable reasons for that is the batteries on whatever was transmitting have expired. So that's the first thing.
In terms of time frames, once we pull in the Towed Pinger Locator, the TPL, we are essentially going to have to bring it up on deck and it will probably not be used again because by the time we complete the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle work, we are going to be into day 42, 43 or whatever it is and by then, I would suggest to all of you, that there would be no prospect of picking up an electronic signal. It would be quite extraordinary if we did.
Now in terms of the timeframe in the employment of the Underwater Vehicle, it has a 24-hour cycle so we anticipate deploying it this evening. It will then be recovered and with the collection of data analysis and so on, it will be ready to be deployed if everything goes according to plan, exactly 24 hours after the first deployment and so on. So it's a 24-hour cycle. It goes down, you don't get any indication of how things are going while it's deployed. You have to wait to recover it before you can get the download of the data that it's picked up.
Question: Hi. [Indistinct]. I'm wondering at this point the search has been going on for this time. Do you have any estimate on how much this has cost so far and also, it's possible this could continue to go on for a very long time. Are you in this for the long haul? Could we be looking at it's possible months for continuing searching for [indistinct]?
Angus Houston: Well, I guess it's very expensive and all of the countries that are contributing to this are running up big costs and I think the world community should be very appreciative to those countries for their contribution to what I would say is one of the largest search and rescue, search and recovery operations that I've seen in my lifetime. But just to put a bit of realism into it, I suppose the model that we tend to use in terms of this sort of operation is the Air France accident that happened about five years ago. The last known position of the aircraft that was lost, and this came from ACAR's data, was 6.5 nautical miles from where the wreckage was finally found, two years after the aircraft was lost.
So I just say that because I think it's important to put it in context that the environment down there is incredibly demanding. Now that wreckage was found at 3,000 metres depth. We're talking about operating down closer to 4,500 metres and I think that gives you some idea of how challenging this should be. And that's why I say we've got to be realistic about this. It may be very difficult to find something and you don't know how good any lead is until you get your eyes on the wreckage.
In a different environment, the mountains of the United States, I used to go searching in the middle of winter, we got lots of leads, it was up to us to pursue all of the leads, but many of those leads took us down what I would call a blind alley. So we've got to be very realistic. We've got a good lead, the most promising lead that we've had through the entire search and we have to wait to see if the Bluefin-21 finds wreckage on the bottom of the ocean.
And I would just say to everybody, don't be over optimistic, be realistic and let's hope, let's hope that that the very strong signal that we were receiving is actually coming from the black box because that would be a really good outcome. But we can't confirm that until we lay our eyes on the vehicle.
I think I might call it—just one more question.
Question: Several days ago, Mr Abbott was in China [indistinct] from the black box of the missing flight [indistinct]?
Angus Houston: Well, I think the Prime Minister said, while he was in China, and one of the things that has been mentioned here is that the Prime Minister was quite expansive in China and I would say I'm not surprised by that. He was in China where there is intense interest in the circumstances around this search and recovery operation and he gave a fairly good summary of where we're at with the search.
But as he said, what's critical here is we've got to prosecute the most promising lead we've got, these transmissions, and we've got to find wreckage visually before we can finally say we have solved this mystery. Okay?
One last question. Yes.
Question: You mentioned this one, this particular lead was the most promising one. [Indistinct] Do you have—is there any other leads apart from this one?
Angus Houston: Well, one you have asked me about in the past, the one from Haixun 01. There was a detection there. That has been analysed and has been discounted as a credible transmission. So at the moment, this is really all we've got. We have got no visual objects. We have—the only thing we have left at this stage is the four transmissions and an oil slick in the same vicinity. So we will investigate those to their conclusion and that's where we are.
Thank you very much.
Angus Houston: That's the only leads at the moment, yes. And, of course, we are a long way after the disappearance of the aircraft. So thank you very much.