KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A Chinese vessel that is part of a multinational search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane in the southern Indian Ocean reported Saturday that an underwater sensor had picked up a “pulse signal,” of the same frequency used by locator devices on planes, China’s official news agency reported.
The devices, which use a frequency of 37.5 kilohertz, are attached to aircraft data and voice recorders, commonly known as black boxes, which are crucial to determining the causes of airplane crashes.
Hours after the report, the Australian chief coordinator of the Indian Ocean search, retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, said in a statement that “the characteristics reported are consistent with the aircraft black box.” He also noted that white objects had been spotted floating in the water about 55 miles from the area where the sounds were heard.
But he urged caution, saying the reports could not be immediately verified – a sentiment also expressed by Malaysian and Chinese officials.
“There is no confirmation at this stage that the signals and the objects are related to the missing aircraft,” said Houston, chief of the Joint Agency Coordination Center, an Australian government group. False alerts can be triggered by sea life, including whales, or by noise from ships. Australian officials reported last week that an alert sounded on the British Royal Navy vessel HMS Echo, which is equipped with black box detection equipment, but the signal turned out to be false.
A reporter from China’s main state-run television network, CCTV, who was on the Chinese ship, the Haixun 01, reported that the vessel’s crew had heard a signal Friday as well. A reporter from the news agency, Xinhua, was also aboard the vessel.
After the Xinhua report, Australian search officials requested more information from China and were considering sending military aircraft to the area where the Chinese ship detected the sounds, Houston said. He did not indicate, however, whether the search authorities planned to send other ships equipped with black box-detecting equipment to the spot.
Despite the lack of confirmation, the news from the Chinese ship generated excitement about the possibility that after four weeks of fruitless searching, officials might finally be zeroing in on concrete evidence of the plane and its fate.
Since Flight 370 veered off its scheduled path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 and dropped off civilian and military radar, no trace of the plane has been found. In the past week, searchers have focused on several vast areas of the Indian Ocean hundreds of miles from Australia. A flotilla of ships from various nations have combed the water as aircraft have conducted daily reconnaissance flights.
Crews aboard the planes and ships have spotted floating items nearly every day, but so far they all have turned out to be fishing equipment and other detritus not related to Flight 370.
On Saturday, 10 military planes, three civilian jets and 11 ships were scheduled to search three areas more than 1,100 miles northwest of Perth, Australia. The pulse signal reported by the Haixun 01 appeared to be south of two of those areas and east of the third. According to coordinates provided by Xinhua, the vessel was searching about 1,020 miles northwest of Perth.
The Haixun 01 has been a regular member of the search flotilla for days and is one of at least eight Chinese vessels that have helped in the search in the Indian Ocean, Australian officials said, though it was unclear how many of the 11 ships searching Saturday were Chinese.
On Friday, search coordinators announced that the underwater phase of the hunt had begun with the addition of two military ships – one from Australia and the other from Britain – equipped with underwater sensor technology.
Those ships were to resume their underwater search Saturday, the Australian Coordination Center said in a statement early in the day. There was no mention of the Haixun 01’s part in the underwater search, though.
The Haixun 01 went into service last year, when the Shanghai Maritime Safety Administration said it was the biggest of China’s civilian maritime administration vessels with the most advanced equipment.
Black boxes are equipped to emit a signal that can be detected by a receiver under the surface of the water. The maximum detection range is typically up to about 2 to 3 kilometers, or less than 2 miles, though the range depends various factors including the sensitivity of the receiver, sea conditions, water temperature and whether the black boxes are buried by debris.
Much hope is riding on the effectiveness of the underwater listening devices. The batteries of the black boxes, with a life span of about a month, are expected to expire as early as this week. When they die, so will the pinger signal, leaving the boxes to rest mutely on the seabed, making their discovery far more difficult.
Also Saturday, Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defense minister and acting transport minister, said that an international investigative committee, led by an independent investigator, would be created to investigate the mystery of Flight 370’s disappearance. The group will study a range of possible contributing factors, including the plane’s airworthiness and maintenance and “medical and human factors.”
The Malaysian government has been criticized for its handling of the case, and has revealed little about the progress of its own police investigation into the plane’s disappearance. But officials said the appointment of the new committee was not a response to that criticism or a reflection of limited gains in the criminal probe but rather a standard step in an international accident investigation.