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Malaysia plane: Two ships scour 150-mile path for 'black box' signal

BEIJING -- Investigators began searching underwater Friday for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, with two ships homing in on a 150-mile path in the Indian Ocean where analysts believe the jet probably went down.

A pinger locator lent by the U.S. Navy was being towed by the Australian ship Ocean Shield, trying to pick up signals from the Boeing 777’s flight data recorder. A British ship with similar capabilities, the Echo, was also participating. The two vessels were dispatched to converge toward each other along the path more than 1,000 miles off the west coast of Australia.

Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search from the Australian city of Perth, said the path was chosen based on an analysis of six hours of satellite pings transmitted hourly from the plane to a satellite after other communications devices on the jetliner were turned off. But without speed or altitude data to factor into the calculations, investigators have had to model possible paths for the plane’s entry into the water.

Flight 370 disappeared 27 days ago en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people aboard, and Houston conceded that the battery life of the flight data recorder was getting close to expiring. He said investigators had no plans to obtain other pinger locators to add to the search. "These things are in very short supply," he said at a news conference in Perth.

[Updated, 2:21 a.m. PDT April 4: Australian Navy Commodore Peter Leavy, commander of the joint task force 658, said the two ships were traveling at just three knots (3.4 mph) to search at depths of nearly 10,000 feet. At that rate, it would take more than 24 hours for the two ships to cover the 150-mile track.

“The search using subsurface equipment needs to be methodical and carefully executed in order to effectively detect the faint signal of the pinger,” Leavy said.]

Even if the battery on the flight data recorder expires, Houston noted that investigators could continue their subsurface search. The Ocean Shield, he said, carries an unmanned underwater exploration vehicle that can search the ocean floor for up to 24 hours at a time.

In addition to the Ocean Shield and Echo, seven other ships were participating in Friday’s search, along with 10 military planes and four civilian aircraft. Some of those other ships carry helicopters that can help look for surface debris.

"We will continue the surface search for a good deal more time," said Houston, adding that there was a "great possibility" of finding debris.

He emphasized that finding wreckage remained crucial to narrowing down the search area.  “The area is vast and remote,” he added, comparing it to the size of Ireland. “We have not searched everywhere that the aircraft might have gone.”

Over the last week, the search area has been gradually nudged further northwest of Perth, and Houston said the zone would continue to be adjusted on a “semi-regular” basis.

Asked about the cost of the search, Houston conceded that “it’s a lot of money” but refused to get into specifics. He said Australian and Malaysia officials were working on drafting a “comprehensive agreement” about the search, including how to handle debris and victims if they are eventually found, and other “critical decision points.”

In an indication that authorities remain hopeful that the search will locate the plane, Houston said Australian officials were making plans to host relatives of people aboard Flight 370 who are expected to arrive in Perth shortly.

Asked about Malaysia authorities' statement that the plane’s disappearance had been categorized as a criminal investigation, Houston said that decision was “not relevant” to the work of the searchers at this time.

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julie.makinen@latimes.com

Twitter: @juliemakLAT

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