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Transcript of Press Conference with Chinese Media, 14 April 2014

Angus Houston: Good Afternoon. It's my pleasure to be here with you. It gives me an opportunity to engage with you. Also, of course, I am here with Peter Leavy, Commodore Peter Leavy, who is the Commander of the Task Group. And on my right, we have somebody you haven't met before, and that's Mr Jesse Jacobs, who will be our interpreter today. Jesse is a very skilled interpreter and we welcome him here today.

Jesse.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: So, I think the best way to proceed today—most of you were at the press conference earlier on today and I know sometimes it's hard to get your question in because people talk over the top of other people, and I wanted to give you an opportunity to be able to, in a more relaxed environment, ask the questions that you want to ask of us. And we'll just go for as long as it takes and we are in your hands.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: So could I have the first question, please?

Question: [Translated from Mandarin] I'm from CCTV. There's been mentioning of the black box signal. Abbott in China mentioned that he believed that the signal was close by and then he gave a few—he said that radius was in a few kilometres. Well, I'd like to know if there's any clues or extra evidence that you can give us to support those claims?

Angus Houston: Ah, yes. Certainly. The four detections were picked up I guess weekend before last, and I haven't got the precise dates—I think it was the fifth and the eighth of April. And fundamentally, the signals taken together give us a good idea of the area of potential. Perhaps if you…

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: But there was one signal which has been analysed very closely, which was a very strong signal. Very strong, and it had all the characteristics of being from a man-made device and the characteristics of the transmission were very, very similar to those that you would experience if you heard a transmission from an emergency locator beacon.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: So we have the four signals; our experts have had a look at all of those and, on the basis of the information that's available to them and what they've learned about the oceanographic environment, they have established a datum on the ocean floor—probably the most likely place where you might find wreckage of the aircraft or a black box. That will be the starting point for the search.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: So that is the answer I give you to your question.

Question: Mr Houston?

Angus Houston: Yes.

Question: I have two questions. I'm from Xinhua. Okay, the first question is according to your press conference this morning, can we jump to a conclusion that can tell this search focus has been adjusted to underwater search for the black box? And second one is can you update us the assets and resources involving the whole search process? How many countries have concluded their mission for the air search and get back home and how many are stay here?

Angus Houston: In terms of where we are at with the search, whilst there was the possibility of picking up transmissions from locator beacons, we wanted to do as much what I will call acoustic searching as possible. The way to do that—the best way to do that—was with the Towed Pinger Locator. This is a device that is towed just above the ocean floor, very deep in the ocean and very sensitive, and has the best chance of picking up signals.

Go to that, and I'll follow.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: Now, as I told you this morning, we are now day 38. The battery shelf-life, or the advertised battery life, is 30 days. We told you 10 days ago that sometimes they go through to about 40 days before they die completely.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: So all our efforts up to now have been, aside from the visual search—there's the visual search and the underwater search has been an acoustic search using primarily the Towed Pinger Locator and, of course, the sonar buoys from our P-3 aircraft.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: But it is now day 38, tomorrow is day 39, and we have had no transmissions for six days. So the time has come to cease the Towed Pinger Locator search—the acoustic search. And as I said in the press conference, the most promising lead are these four transmissions that we picked up a few days ago, and it's time to go underwater using them as the start point for underwater search activity.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And, to my knowledge, all the countries that contributed assets, they are all still operating their ships and their aircraft in support of the various search activities. So nobody has—no country has left the search. They are all still there. But as I said this morning, the value of the visual search with aircraft and ships is diminishing because it is now 38 days since the aircraft was lost and thus far, we have had no item recovered from the sea or identified in the sea that has anything to do with MH370.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Question: So does it mean the international search team will decrease the resources involved in the search?

Angus Houston: Well, this is, as I foreshadowed, we have reached a stage in the visual search where further efforts appear to be unlikely to yield results. So what is normal in these circumstances is that the partners, the countries, get together, consult, and decide what needs to be done next. And I think that consultation will take place later this week. And, obviously, it will include the People's Republic of China.

Thank you.

Question: [Indistinct] How do you express [indistinct] position to deploy the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle this evening but not day 37 or day 39, but today, this evening. Why we need to wait six days but not seven days? Why?

Angus Houston: Well, it was simply a matter of judgment as to whether there was any probability of the batteries in the emergency locator beacons, if that is indeed what we're tracking—the fact that we think at this point they would probably be running out of life. Therefore, there would be no transmissions from the deep, that therefore, we needed to transition into the visual, or should I say, the underwater search using sideways-looking sonar.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And bear in mind, it has been six days since we had any transmission that was detected from the deep, and when you ask the question why, one of the factors that is probably more important than any others is the fact that the batteries have expired. In other words, they are not powering the emergency locator equipment.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Question: Mr Houston?

Angus Houston: Yes.

Question: In the face of underwater search, will the P-3 Orion still deploy the pinger [indistinct] buoys? Will these buoys become a disturbance to the Bluefin search?

Angus Houston: I think the—I will defer to the Commodore there. But, you know, I think that we are probably looking at two separate activities. And I'll let him explain what those two activities are.

Peter Leavy: To answer your first question, we do expect that the P-3 sonar buoy search will continue for the next two to three days, perhaps, just in case there is still some power in the underwater beacon. Once we've finally decided that their batteries are dead, there is no point in continuing with the sonar buoy search because it requires the acoustic signal to be transmitted.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Peter Leavy: And when the life of the sonar buoys expires, which is generally around eight hours after they are deployed, they do scuttle and sink to the sea bed. So they will be on the floor of the ocean but they're very easily identifiable, and when and if, we get to the point where we have a camera deployed to photograph any items that may be detected by the sonar search, we would easily be able to identify any sonar buoys if they are in the vicinity of the aircraft.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: You had a question?

Question: Yes, I did. Is the use of the submarine search—is it the last chance for the families to get answers of what happened to the [indistinct]?

Angus Houston: Well, I think this is a very important step in the progression of, shall we say, capability steps that are being taken. We've done the visual search; we've found nothing. We've now done the Towed Pinger Locator search; we have found some transmissions. We now need to go down and visually search in the area of those transmissions. Now, I'm very hopeful that we find something. But if we don't, and that is a possibility, there's no doubt about that—until we find the wreckage, we can't be certain about anything. I think if we can't find anything in that location, we then have to go back and talk to the partners and work out what happens next.

And that probably involves, if we take the Air France circumstances—that probably involves a very long, very painstaking sonar search of the floor of the ocean along the arc of the seventh ping. So that would take an extraordinary amount of time, would be very expensive but eventually, I would hope, it would yield information about what might have happened.

But that is beyond where we are now. We are totally focused on the requirement to prosecute the current set of circumstances and go down and see what is causing the transmissions, and we hope that that will lead us to MH370. But we have to see the wreckage to be sure that that is so.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And, of course, my heart goes out to the families. They must have had a terrible time. Day 38 and, as yet, no certainty what happened to MH370. So we are very sensitive to the fact that they would still be experiencing much emotional difficulty, and my heart is with them at this time.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Question: The Chinese submarine [Inaudible] can go beyond 7 kilometres underwater. Would it be helpful in the deep sea search and is it being considered?

Angus Houston: I'm not aware of the capability of the submarine. But any underwater vessel or vehicle that can go into the deep ocean will probably be useful in this search, provided it has the right sort of search equipment to search the ocean bottom.

Perhaps I'll let you…

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And, you know, I was asked earlier on, well, what next? Well, what next would be vehicles—underwater vehicles, maybe submarines, although most submarines can't go that deep—that can go along the ocean floor and search the ocean floor for wreckage. But it is a very long, long process because we've never had a search conducted in such deep water before. The Air France disaster of five years ago was conducted in water that was 3,000 metres deep. This time, we are looking at water which is 4,500 metres deep, which means that we're dealing with very high pressures and potentially very difficult conditions given the likely characteristics of the bottom of the ocean there with these beds of silt, which make a visual search more difficult.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And, you know, this is something that the international partners need to talk about, in terms of who has the capabilities to do this work and how the international community might work together to effect such a search. But again, I hasten to add, let's focus on the underwater search that we're doing right now. We hope that we get a good outcome from that. But, as I've said, we should be cautious about our expectations.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Question: Hi. I'm from CCTV. Yes, one more question. You know, this morning you mentioned that you discovered about the oil leak. So far, do you get any more information about the leak in relation with the missing flight?

Angus Houston: No. It's just another—I talk about leads. It's another lead, okay, just like the transmissions are a lead. Transmissions, of course, are a promising lead. What must happen before we know anything conclusive about the oil leak is we need to analyse it to see what substances are there and where they might have come from. Only then will we be able to determine whether the origin might have been a downed aircraft.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And I'd be very quick to add that we have seen literally hundreds of objects on the visual search that looked like they might be interesting for investigation, and not one of those has had a connection to MH370. So, again, I am cautious until we have done the analysis of the sample of the slick that we have picked up and we are having delivered to mainland Australia for analysis.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Question: This morning, we get the very fresh information from the JACC, the core region centre around 1600 square kilometres. So we know for one, Bluefin-21 for one mission it just can finish around 40 square kilometres. So this varies, you know, from [indistinct]. So from your expectation, how long we can finish this area search one?

Angus Houston: Well, I think that remains to be seen. We haven't been down there yet and we need to experience the environment. 4,500 metres, potentially a silty bottom, and we don't know what other challenges are down there. So I couldn't give you a definitive estimate at this stage.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Question: Actually, I remember that when the first time the Ocean Shield discovered an acoustic signal, you said that you are optimistic at that time. But what's your feeling right now? How do you comment on this search location?

Angus Houston: I think I said I was optimistic that we were in the right area, and I did that on the basis of the transmissions. The way I feel now, I am very hopeful that we will find something. But, as I have said time and time again—and I think I said it at that time—the only way to confirm a lead in a search operation is to find the wreckage. And in this particular case, I will not be there with certainty until I have seen evidence of the wreckage, either in a photograph or a report that comes back to me that says we have sighted wreckage on the floor of the ocean.

So, yeah, I hope for the sake of the families that we find something. But it's a very big ocean, and essentially, this is the lead we are pursuing at the moment. And as I have said this morning, there are no other similar leads available to us at this time.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: In other words, I am being cautious, because we have a transmission—or we had a transmission—and we know the position the ship was in when the transmission came in, and we will now go down and have a look at the location where the transmissions came from.

So, given that the transmission that was analysed said man-made and characteristics that match an emergency locator beacon transmitter, I am hopeful and we'll see where it goes from here.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Question: Mr Houston?

Angus Houston: Yes.

Question: Technically, when the Bluefin-21 sends back the sonar map, who will be responsible for analysing the data? Do you have any experts on board the Ocean Shield to analyse the data? Second, since when the Bluefin-21 can only search like 40 square kilometres at one time, why you can't bring more underwater vehicles like this to join the search?

Angus Houston: Well, what I will do is I will give a broad response, and then I will ask the Commodore to come back in more detail. First of all, the initial search will be very intense. You could have a much larger area searched by the Bluefin-21, but it wouldn't—the spacing would be much broader and you wouldn't cover the ground with the same precision and the same close look that you need in this sort of search. So it's a very— it's quite an intense sort of search. In other words, it's a very thorough search.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: In terms of these vehicles, this is the only one that we have available to us at the moment. There are other vehicles like this in the world, and at this point, we are just using the one vehicle.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And I will invite the Commodore to say a few words.

Peter Leavy: Just to provide a sense of the information that's gained from the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, the Bluefin-21. Once it's deployed, it operates around 35 to 50 metres above the seabed and is able to look around 3-400 metres either side of its track. So that should enable it to provide a very detailed map of the ocean floor, which will be analysed by experts on board Ocean Shield.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Peter Leavy: And I think it's important to note that there is a difference between this vehicle and the Towed Pinger Locator. The Towed Pinger Locator was towed through the water and had a cable connected to the ship so they could listen in real time to that information. The AUV is not tethered to the ship and the information that's gathered is stored in an on-board computer, and is not accessible until the vehicle returns to the surface after its 16 hour search, and then is downloaded to the computers on Ocean Shield, and then the analysis can start, which is why it takes around 24 hours to complete one full mission cycle.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Peter Leavy: And as well as the experts on the ship, they will have access to experts ashore to look at the data as well, including Phoenix International, which is the company that owns and operates the vehicle. They have a lot of specialist knowledge, some of which is on the ship and some of which is back ashore. So it will be a collaborative effort to determine exactly what information that they can glean from that sonar picture.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: Next question?

Question: Yeah, I have a question. You mentioned a searching area around 4,500 metres deep. So I want to know, is there a depth limit for the Bluefin-21?

Angus Houston: That is the limit. The vehicle, the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, Bluefin-21, has an absolute limit of 4,500 metres. In other words, it cannot go deeper than 4,500 metres.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: Now, the area of search at the moment, from the charts that we have, appears to be something shallower than 4,500 metres. But it is still very deep—4300 or thereabouts. So we are operating to the limit of the capability of the Bluefin-21.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: Well, we might just have one more question and then we might wrap it up, if that's okay with you?

Question: We talk about wreckage and didn't find any piece of wreckage. So I'm wondering what particular thing—particular imprint or shape—are you expecting the Bluefin-21 to go underwater to see, to find? Are you looking for the whole plane as a whole because there is a possibility that the aircraft could enter the water without breaking into pieces? Or, are you looking for some small wreckage—small debris—and if you are looking for some small debris, why there is nothing on the surface?

Angus Houston: Well, it's a very good question, and I think one of the things about aircraft wreckage on the surface is you've got to find where the aircraft crashed very early on in the search. Look at Air France. Air France, they knew where the surface wreckage was within 24 hours of the aircraft going missing. There were two separate fields of debris 80 kilometres apart. Okay? It was found virtually straight away and, indeed, two people were found as well, two bodies were found.

So this is, you know, this is—the problem here, I think, is that we didn't start searching the Southern Ocean until much later, seven or eight days, I think, before we started a visual search in the Southern Ocean. And initially we didn't have the enabling information from the expert panel in Kuala Lumpur. But… sorry.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: So, in other words, initially when Australia started mounting a visual air search, it was enabled by overhead satellites, and the satellites would find items of interest in the water and the aircraft would then go out and basically check the wreckage—what was potentially wreckage. In every case, it was something else.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And until the expert panel—this is the experts from the five nations, including China—had done their analysis, we didn't really have a good starting point for the search. It was only after they had done their work in terms of the communications, the handshakes, between satellite and aircraft, and we got the seventh ping and we started to understand the significance of that, that we had a good starting point for a visual search.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And if we go back to five years ago, the Air France accident, the last known position of the Air France aircraft was calculated on the basis of ACARS exchanges with the aircraft, and that position was very well known and yet it took two whole years to find the wreckage of the aircraft, which was on the floor of the ocean for two years, and yet the distance was 6.5 nautical miles and the water was 3,000 metres deep. So, this is why I think we're dealing with a very difficult set of circumstances. This is more demanding than anything that anybody has ever done before.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: So, to a larger extent, initially we were searching from likely sightings on satellites of big pieces of white stuff, usually white—something that was white that seemed to be floating in the ocean, go and check that and then we go and check another piece. To a large extent, until we got the expert data we were searching the whole Indian Ocean. There was nothing to fix a position where we might have greater certainty of finding something.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: And the visual search over the last 14, 15 days by the ships and the aircraft has been enabled by the work that the panel in Kuala Lumpur have done. As a consequence, it's been much more focused in likely areas, yet we've still not found anything.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: I might close it there, but can I say thank you very much for coming along. I hope this is useful to people who read your newspapers and watch your TV services. What we are trying to do is keep everybody very informed about some of the challenges that we are dealing with in this very demanding search and rescue operation. And one of the things that I have been immensely impressed with is the high quality of the cooperation of all the nations who are contributing to the search effort.

And on behalf of the Australian Government, I would like to thank our very good partners from China for the huge effort that they are putting into this search. It is enabling us to work more closely with the PLA Navy in a way that we've never done before. And I would note that Haixun 01 is doing a port visit to the little city of Albany, one of our most beautiful natural harbours in Australia, and I hope she and her crew have a well-earned rest because they certainly deserve it, as do all of the other crews. I also met the air crew out at Pearce from your country, and I had a very good exchange with them a few days ago. And again, they are doing magnificent work too.

So thank you very much to the People's Republic of China. We enjoy working with you, and I think this is very good that we are all working to a common purpose in what is a very important search and recovery operation. Hopefully, we can find a way to find MH370 so that we can help the families in their time of need. Thank you very much.

Jesse Jacobs: [Translates]

Angus Houston: Thank you. And, Ladies and Gentlemen, perhaps I should say my apologies to the interpreter. Because you all speak English, I sometimes forget that there's a need to pause and let the interpreter continue, but Jesse, thank you very much, and I would like to applaud the interpreter.

[Applause]