Over the past few days of the endlessly perplexing hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, much debate and confusion has swirled around what was once dubbed the most promising lead in the search: a series of underwater signals, or “pings,” picked up by sound-detecting equipment scouring the remote Indian Ocean in early April.
At the time, officials said they were consistent with a plane’s black boxes. But an underwater sub that spent weeks scouring the seabed in the area near where the signals were detected found nothing, and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is helping head up the search, this week ruled the area out as the plane’s final resting place.
The search is now on hold for two months while new, specialized equipment can be brought in to scan a 700 kilometer by 80 kilometer (430 mile by 50 mile) arc of ocean that was largely identified by an analysis of hourly transmissions, or “handshakes,” between the plane and a satellite. The seventh and final handshake involved a logon request consistent with a plane powering up its satellite communication equipment after a power interruption _ leading investigators to believe the plane had nearly exhausted its fuel supply.
With the origin of the underwater pings now in doubt and the search stalled, what do the officials heading up the hunt for Flight 370 have to say? Here, Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, answers some of the most pressing questions:
Q: Are you still confident that the plane is somewhere along the arc defined by the seventh handshake between the plane and the satellite?
A: “We are very confident that it’s close to that arc.”
Q: Why were officials so confident initially that the underwater pings came from the black boxes?
A: “They had a range of acoustic characteristics that were consistent with underwater locator beacons and … given that we were chasing black boxes with underwater locator beacons, it was a very credible detection _ and it was the only credible detection we had. So those sorts of leads you’ve got to pursue until you can eliminate them, which is what we’re doing.”
Q: Have you at this point ruled out the pings as coming from the black boxes?
A: “We’re still looking at those signals to try and understand them because if it wasn’t from the ULB _ the underwater locator beacon _ we don’t know what it was. And we’d really like to understand that. And until we can understand it, we don’t think we can confidently say that the detections were ruled out. What we can say is we’ve searched the area associated with them thoroughly continued…