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Joint Agency Coordination Centre

Transcript of Press Conference, 28 April 2014

Tony Abbott: Okay. Thanks everyone for being here. It's good to be here with Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston who has been coordinating our search activities in Perth.

It is now 52 days since Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared and I'm here to inform you that the search will be entering a new phase. I regret to say that, thus far, none of our efforts in the air, on the surface or under sea have found any wreckage. But as you know, all of us, myself included, have stressed all along the difficulty of this search. This is probably the most difficult search in human history.

What we have been doing, as you know, for the last few weeks is focusing on the best lead we had, which was based on detections by the towed black box locator deployed from the Australian Defence vessel Ocean Shield. We have now searched close to 400 square kilometres under sea.

I am now required to say to you that it is highly unlikely, at this stage, that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface. By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become water logged and sunk. And with the distances involved, all of the aircraft are operating at close to the limit of sensible and safe operation. Therefore, we are moving from the current phase to a phase which is focused on searching the ocean floor over a much larger area.

I should at this point acknowledge the tremendous work of the air crew from eight nations that have been participating in this search off the West Australian coast. I want to acknowledge and praise the commitment and the professionalism of all the air crew involved. I also want to acknowledge and praise the commitment and the professionalism of all of the mariners involved in this search.

What we are going to do, though, is enter a new phase of search focusing under the sea. The Bluefin-21 submersible will continue in operation. What we are doing, though, is looking to an intensified underwater search involving different technology, in particular using specialised side scan sonar equipment towed behind ships to scan the seabed for evidence of aircraft wreckage.

The Australian Government, in consultation with the Malaysian Government, is willing to engage one or more commercial companies to undertake this work and this work would be done under contract to the Australian Government. We will continue to work closely with Malaysia and with China in taking this operation forward.

It could take us some weeks to put in place these new contractual arrangements for an intensified under sea search, and during this period, there will be a dedicated team of vessels from Australia, Malaysia and China that will continue maritime operations to maintain continuity and momentum. As well, I stress, the Bluefin-21 submersible will continue to be deployed. In addition, an Australian aircraft, most likely a AP-3C Orion will be on standby at short notice in case possible wreckage is identified.

Essentially, though, what we are looking to do is conduct as thorough an under sea search as is humanly possible, if necessary, of the entire probable impact zone which, as you know, is roughly 700 kilometres by 80 kilometres.

The point that I have been making all along is that we owe it to the families of all on board, we owe it to the wider travelling public to do everything we reasonably can to get to the bottom of this mystery and I want the families to know, I want the world to know, that Australia will not shirk its responsibilities in this area. We will do everything we humanly can, everything we reasonably can, to solve this mystery. We will not let people down. And while the search will be moving to a new phase in coming weeks, it certainly is not ending.

Before I throw to questions, just a few facts that you might be interested in. Australia has been coordinating the search for 41 of the 52 days since MH370 went missing. In this period, more than 4.5 million square kilometres of ocean has been searched. There have been 334 search flights conducted, an average of eight a day for a total of over 3000 hours.

There have been 10 civil aircraft and 19 military aircraft involved, seven Royal Australian Air Force aircraft, one Royal New Zealand Air Force aircraft, two US Navy aircraft, two People's Liberation Army Air Force aircraft, three Defence Force and Coast Guard aircraft from Japan, two aircraft from the republic of Korea and two aircraft of the Royal Malaysian Air Force.

Up to 14 ships from Australia, from China and from the United Kingdom have been used to cover the search areas during the search period and, as I said, at the completion of today's mission, Bluefin-21 will have conducted a subsurface search of over 400 square kilometres.

Enormous efforts have been made. Enormous efforts will continue to be made. This is an extraordinary mystery. We will do everything we reasonably can to resolve it.

Question: Prime Minister, two questions, how much has it cost so far? How much will it cost? And secondly, of all the hundreds of photos that have been taken by British, American, French, Australian satellites and Chinese satellites, are any of those pictures believed to still be parts of the aircraft in the water?

Tony Abbott: Okay. Well, on the costs, essentially up 'til now every nation has been bearing its own costs and, in the case of Australia, we have been essentially using Australian military assets, assets we would be paying for anyway. The new phase involving commercial contractors with a high degree of specialisation in deep ocean search will be paid for. We expect that, to do this job properly, will cost in the order of $60 million.

No one should underestimate the degree of responsibility that Australia has here because this has happened in our search and rescue zone and there were, after all, six Australian citizens and one Australian resident on that aircraft as well as the citizens of Malaysia, China and other countries. So we will be seeking some appropriate contribution from other nations involved but we will ensure that this search goes ahead.

Question: On the photos?

Tony Abbott: Angus might like to deal with that.

Angus Houston: We have not found—as the Prime Minister said, we haven't found anything anywhere that has any connection to MH370, and that includes the satellite imagery.

Tony Abbott: Now, just on that subject, though, our way of operating at all times has been to release credible information as soon as we've had it so that we could be as transparent as possible. And all of the different leads we've had we believed to be credible and important at the time, although obviously at this stage we think that the most reliable information is the information that was detected from the aircraft's engines before they ceased to operate and the detections that the black box detector deployed from Ocean Shield has picked up in the Indian Ocean.

Question: Prime Minister, what information did you have when you told the Chinese that we were within a few kilometres of finding the plane and why has that changed?

Tony Abbott: Well, I'm not sure that I ever used quite that language but we still have a considerable degree of confidence that the detections that were picked up using the equipment deployed from Ocean Shield were from a black box recorder. And there's quite a degree of frustration and disappointment that, as yet, the Bluefin-21 undersea search has been unable to find evidence of wreckage on the ocean floor.

At all times we have been as transparent as we can be, as up front as we can be at every level. I've had, as you know, a number of conversations with the Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, both on the phone and face to face. I've had a number of conversations with the senior leadership of China, both on the phone and face to face. I've had a phone conversation with Prime Minister Key of New Zealand. I've had two phone conversations with Prime Minister Cameron of Great Britain.

At all times they've been up front with me, I've been up front with them and, as you know, as well as the very regular media conferences that Angus Houston has been doing, I've probably had maybe a dozen of the briefings myself.

Question: Can I read this quote, Mr Abbott? It says we are confident that we know the position of the black box flight recorder to within some kilometres. So was the information at the time wrong?

Tony Abbott: Well, that was the position we were in then. We are still baffled and disappointed that we haven't able to find undersea wreckage based on those detections and this is one of the reasons why we are continuing to deploy the Bluefin-21 submersible, because this is the best information that we've got. It may turn out to be a false lead but, nevertheless, it's the best lead we've got and we are determined to pursue it.

Angus Houston: If I could just add to that, essentially there was an analysis done by the Australian Joint Acoustic Centre, a centre of excellence in the Royal Australian Navy, deals in acoustic sounds all time. They did a direct comparison between one of the detections and an emergency locator beacon. The characteristics of the pulsing were identical. So we were, I should say, quietly optimistic that there was something down there that must have been emanating that, and they also confirmed they thought it was man-made.

So that was the best information we've had, and as we've said all along, we will pursue every lead that might yield a result, and that's exactly what we were doing with that.

Tony Abbott: The point I want to make here is that I'm not in the business of making excuses for failure. I'm in the business of undertaking to do everything we reasonably can to achieve a success here and obviously success would be to achieve some absolutely rock-solid information about the ultimate whereabouts of this aircraft.


Question: Without being too pessimistic, how much longer are you prepared to continue the search? Is there a time limit, for example, on this new phase with the private contractor? Are they only going to look for a set period?

Tony Abbott: As part of this, we are going to go back to the experts in Kuala Lumpur. There's a team of experts that assembled there shortly after MH370 disappeared, experts from Malaysia, China, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. We are going to go back to that team of experts and ask them to reconsider exactly what they think is the most likely probable impact zone based on the data that we've got and the reflections that they have inevitably had over the last few weeks on all of this.

And then we are going to methodically, carefully, to the very best of the ability of contemporary technology search the entire probable impact zone. 700 kilometres by 80 kilometres. We will search it all. That's obviously going to take quite a few months depending upon the weather, depending upon how quickly equipment can be deployed, but as I said, this is so important not just to the families but to everyone who travels by air that we owe it to the families, we owe it to the world to do whatever we reasonably can to get to the bottom of the mystery and we won't let them down.

Question: Does Australia have a plan to pass on leadership of this operation in the coming months or will we see it to the end?

Tony Abbott: Legal responsibility for the investigation, as I understand it, rests with the Malaysian Government given that it was a Malaysian aircraft that went down. Responsibility for search and recovery in the Australian search and rescue zone rests with Australia. So while we are attempting to search and recover, Australia will maintain the leadership and the Malaysians have indicated to us that they want us to be involved in all subsequent investigations.

Question: Apart from joint funding, is there anything else that other nations can do to help in this search? For instance, there may be no need for military aircraft from other nations at the moment but would there be any need or could it help to have military vessels from other nations helping in any way and will you be talking to other leaders about ways they could help?

Tony Abbott: Well, obviously I have been in regular discussion with the leaders of China, Malaysia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom. And Angus and his technical team have been in regular discussion with the experts from all of these countries and, indeed, from experts from other countries as well. So these discussions will continue and we will use whatever equipment we can reasonably get that we reasonably think will maximise our chances of locating this flight.

Question: Can we ask Mr Houston for technical detail? The nature of the seabed, there has been talk of deep silt. Is it possible the aircraft might have been missed or wreckage might have been missed because it's buried in deep silt? Is one point. And given your comprehensive review of all the technical data, the pings from the engine that went to the satellite, the locator beacon signals, do you believe the aircraft is out there somewhere?

Angus Houston: Well, I will take that one first. I think we are in the right area. I think the best information we have are those manual handshakes between the satellite and the aircraft and as the Prime Minister said, the seventh ping was a different signal and something happened at that stage and it happened on the arc through what has been the defined search area, that's 700 kilometres long. So yes, I think we are in the right area.

In terms of the seabed, there hasn't been much oceanographic survey done in that part of the Indian Ocean but everything that we have seen thus far from the sonar work that's been done on the bottom is that the whole subsurface there is covered in silt. Now, unfortunately with the sonar, you don't get a read-out on how deep the silt bed is but it could be very thick and the expert advice we have is that irrespective of how thick it is, if there is an aircraft down there, there should be some debris lying on top of the silt and, thus far, as the Prime Minister told you, we haven't seen anything.

Question: Prime Minister, you say that nothing will be found on the surface. Is it possible that nothing will ever be found at all?

Tony Abbott: Well, of course it's possible but that would be a terrible outcome because it would leave families with a baffling uncertainty forever. I mean, the aircraft plainly cannot disappear. It must be somewhere, and we are going to do everything we reasonably can, even to the point of conducting the most intensive undersea search which human ingenuity currently makes possible of some 60,000 square kilometres under the sea. So we are going to do all these things because we do not want this crippling cloud of uncertainty to hang over these families and the wider travelling public.

Question: Will the Chinese equipment or techniques be involved in the new phase?

Tony Abbott: Look, we will be using the equipment and the technology from all countries that can make a valuable contribution and we are very grateful for the contribution that we've had from China and from other countries as well and the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force and ships of the Chinese Navy and other maritime agencies have been our vital and valuable partners at every step of the way.


Question: This side scanner sonar equipment that's going to be used, can you explain a bit more about where this has been used before and perhaps Angus Houston might, as well. If we are talking about a 60,000 square kilometre area, how much can it cover in a day, a week, a month? What can we expect?

Tony Abbott: Well, my understanding, and I am going to throw to Angus to elaborate, but my understanding is that to do a thorough search of this kind of area will take in the order of six to eight months. That's my understanding. But Angus, over to you.

Angus Houston: Yep. If everything goes perfectly, I would say we will be doing well if we do it in eight months. But then you have issues, potential issues, with weather, potential issues with unserviceability of equipment. Witness what's happened with our Bluefin; there've been a number of teething problems with it. But, you know, eventually it has done the job in a little bit more time than we had anticipated initially.

In terms of the towed sonar, the advantage of it is that we are going to be going—covering a very long area. 700 kilometres. And what you can do is go down that 700 kilometre arc pulling the sideways sonar picking up the imagery as you go in a way you can't do with an autonomous underwater vehicle. So the experts who have had a look at this have recommended to the Government that that's the best technology to employ on the underwater search.

Question: So it gives you a map of the ocean floor?

Angus Houston: Well, it gives you—it probably gives you a very similar image to what we are picking up with the Bluefin at the moment, but what we have to do with the Bluefin—every 20 hours we have to pull it out of the water, download the data, and turn it around, and it then goes on to the next mission.

Question: So why are we using this sonar?

Angus Houston: Well, the autonomous underwater vehicle is a better match with the towed locator—pinger locator. If we had… as indeed we are doing, the concept for the whole operation was to try and find the pinger. We thought that we were in the right area from the detections we picked up. I was asked many times, was the aircraft down there? I said, I'm not prepared to make that call but we are optimistic that we're on to something. And of course, once we sent the autonomous underwater vehicle down there, unfortunately, we haven't found anything.

Now, the search with the underwater submersible will continue and will do the adjacent areas, and we haven't given up hope yet. This has been the most promising lead that we have had. It is right underneath the seventh ping, and the other thing is, it's on the air route from Cocos Island to Perth. So, you know, for these reasons, we had a bit of hope that this was the place.

So we will continue the search and I think that it is very doable. It will take time, and I'd invite you all to just have a look at the French experience with their flight 447. It took them two years to find the final resting place of that aircraft and it was only 6.5 nautical miles from the last known position. So we are getting into a very challenging task, as the Prime Minister said, probably the most demanding task in search terms that has ever been mounted to look for a lost aircraft.

Question: Why you are considering involving some commercial companies to do the underwater search? What kind of qualifications are you looking at? Are you looking for companies with more autonomous underwater vehicle or AUB with like more capabilities? For example, it can go deeper than 4,500 metres like the Bluefin?

Tony Abbott: Well, again, I will ask Angus to elaborate but there are private businesses that, for all sorts of reasons, have a particular expertise in deep oceans. There are all sorts of reasons why commercial operators need to go this deep, to search for minerals, oil, gas et cetera. And so there is expertise in the private sector above and beyond the expertise in this particular specialty, which might exist in government, in navies, in military.

So we want to get the best expertise, the best technology that will best guarantee that we get the best possible outcome, and we don't start off with any theological view about it's got to be government or it's got to be non-government. We just want to get the best equipment and the best people to bring this search to a successful conclusion if ever that be possible.

Question: Some points of this big area, some point will be deeper than like 4,500 metres. Even go to the six…

Tony Abbott: Well, my understanding is that most of the ocean that we're looking at is between four and four and a half thousand metres deep. But you are right, there are, I gather, some crevasses and things and that will require, should they be searched, better equipment. But the important thing is to have the best equipment for the task, and that's what we're looking for.


Angus Houston: Look, I don't have much to add because the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has been engaged on this task of talking to the contractors already. They have got some preliminary views. They'll be engaging the contractors as to the best technology to do the job. Thus far, it looks like it's towed sonar but, at some stage during the process, particularly if we find the last resting place, we'll have to go to recovery vehicles and obviously we are looking at that sort of capability as well.

So it's a little bit early to say, well, it will be this or be that. We will keep you informed, as we have all the way through this process. As the Prime Minister said, we will be completely transparent and when decisions have been made as to the best technology, we will inform you.

Question: On the issue of the Bluefin-21—if I can just ask Prime Minister, thank you. On the issue of the Bluefin-21, there were questions raised as to whether it was the best technology. You stuck with it. You have done so for many weeks. Was that the right decision or should you have brought in other submersibles sooner?

Tony Abbott: Well, this was the equipment that is under contract to the US Navy for dealing with precisely these sorts of situations: the loss of an aircraft at sea. So, it's the standard equipment for this kind of a scenario. The US Navy very kindly made it available to us and it was quickly deployed. But precisely because it's been used now for some weeks, while we haven't given up hope, we haven't had a successful outcome, we are looking at new and better technology.

Question: But in hindsight, do you wish you had brought the submersibles, you know, to the scene sooner?

Tony Abbott: Well, it is the old story, you do the best you've got with the equipment that you've got, and at some point in time, you decide that you need different and better equipment, and that's exactly what we are going to do now.

Angus Houston: If I could just at to that, the Bluefin-21 was the perfect platform for what we have been doing up to now. We thought we had a location on the ocean floor. We had a highly adaptive, highly flexible submersible that could go down and check out the area. It's very manoeuvrable and it works very well and it has gone over the whole high priority area, mapped it all and we haven't found anything. Now, if we'd had, for example, a towed sonar, it takes half a day to turn a sonar around to come back over the same area. So there's pluses and minuses with every system that you use and I would say, from our point of view, the Bluefin-21 has delivered exactly the sorts of results we were looking for in these circumstances.

Tony Abbott: Thank you so much.