SYDNEY - Australia on Thursday ruled out a large swathe of Indian Ocean as Flight MH370's final resting place after a lengthy underwater hunt, as a US Navy official queried whether the missing plane ever went there.
The Joint Agency Coordination Centre said that the search in an area using a mini sub where acoustic transmissions were detected in early April was now complete. "The Joint Agency Coordination Centre can advise that no signs of aircraft debris have been found by the autonomous underwater vehicle since it joined the search effort," JACC said.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau had advised that "the area can now be discounted as the final resting place of MH370" in an outcome that will extend the agony of relatives who are desperate for closure. Australian ship Ocean Shield, which is carrying the US Bluefin-21 sub, has now left the area after scouring 850 square kilometres of sea bed for the jet that vanished flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 carrying 239 people.
The end of the underwater mission came as the US Navy's Deputy Director of Ocean Engineering Michael Dean told CNN that the pings at the heart of the search were no longer believed to have come from the plane's black box. He said that if they were from the on-board data or voice recorders they would have been found by now. "Our best theory at this point is that the pings were likely to some sound produced by the ship or within the electronics of the towed pinger locator," Dean said.
"Always your fear, any time you put electronic equipment in the water, is that if any water gets in and grounds or shorts something out, which you could start producing sound." He said it was not possible to absolutely exclude that the pings came from the black boxes, but there was no evidence now to suggest they did. A US Navy spokesman later said comments were "speculative and premature". JACC had no comment on Dean's statements.
The US Navy pinger locator, dragged by Ocean Shield, was used by searchers to listen for underwater signals in the remote southern Indian Ocean in an area where satellite data indicated the plane went down. A series of signals it picked up prompted Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to say he was "very confident" they were from the black box. It led to the deployment of the US Bluefin-21 on April 14.
JACC said that the operation would now move to the next phase involving sophisticated equipment to scan the unmapped ocean floor, with all existing information and analysis reviewed to define a new search zone of up to 60,000 square kilometres. A Chinese survey ship, Zhu Kezhen, is currently mapping areas of the ocean in preparation for the commercially contracted deep sea search, which is expected to begin in August and take up to 12 months.
Scott Hamilton, managing director of US-based aerospace consultancy Leeham, said all the data would have to be re-examined "from start to finish" but he did not believe the search would be called off any time soon. "If you mean do they stop looking for the airplane entirely and just write it off as missing forever, I would say, not yet. They need to exhaust all analysis," he said. "I think it will be some time, perhaps years, before they completely throw in the towel."
Many relatives of those on board, who were mostly from China and Malaysia, have voiced frustration over the lack of progress and accused Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday of withholding crucial satellite data. That came after Malaysia on Tuesday released a 47-page summary of communication logs from the plane recorded by British satellite operator Inmarsat information that relatives had long demanded.
"So much time has passed and nothing has been found, so we doubt that the calculated position of the plane is correct," said Steve Wang, from a support group of relatives of the flight's 153 Chinese passengers. Malaysia insists it is doing all it can in what is an unprecedented situation. Relying in part on the Inmarsat data, officials believe the jet inexplicably veered off its flight path before crashing into the sea, possibly after running out of fuel.