Blow to hopes of finding missing jet as signals ‘from black box’ fade

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Search crews in the Indian Ocean have failed to pick up more of the faint underwater sounds that may have been from the missing Malaysian jetliner’s black boxes.

The signals first heard late on Saturday and early on Sunday had sparked hopes of a breakthrough in the search for Flight MH370, but Angus Houston, the retired Australian air chief marshal leading the search far off western Australia, said listening equipment on the Ocean Shield ship has picked up no trace of the sounds since then.

Finding the black boxes quickly is critical because their locator beacons have a battery life of only about a month – and yesterday marked exactly one month since the plane vanished. Once the beacons blink off, locating the black boxes in such deep water would be an immensely difficult, if not impossible, task.

“There have been no further contacts with any transmission and we need to continue (searching) for several days, right up to the point at which there’s absolutely no doubt that the batteries will have expired,” Mr Houston said.

If, by that point, the US navy listening equipment being towed behind the Ocean Shield has failed to pick up any signals, a submarine will be deployed to try to chart out any debris on the sea floor. If the sub maps out a debris field, the crew will replace its sonar system with a camera unit to photograph any wreckage.

Earlier, Australia’s acting prime minister, Warren Truss, had said the Bluefin 21 autonomous sub would be launched yesterday, but a spokesman for Mr Truss said later the conflicting information was a misunderstanding and Mr Truss acknowledged the sub was not being used immediately.

The two distinct sounds the towed pinger locator detected are consistent with the pings from an aircraft’s black boxes, Mr Houston said.

Defence minister David Johnston called the sounds the most positive lead and said it was being pursued vigorously. Still, officials warned it could take days to determine whether the sounds were connected to the plane that vanished on March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 on board.