Skip to main content

In search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, two new signals buoy hope

By Ed Payne and Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
  • NEW: Thursday's search area is scaled back to cover about 22,400 square miles
  • Four signals total are detected in the same general area
  • Previous signals are "consistent" with that of a flight data recorder
  • The signals are getting weaker

(CNN) -- In a sea of uncertainty, two bits of good news emerged Wednesday.

Searchers picked up fresh signals that officials hope came from locator beacons attached to the so-called black boxes in the tail of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared more than a month ago while carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The Australian ship Ocean Shield first picked up two sets of underwater pulses Saturday. It heard nothing more until Tuesday, when it reacquired the signals twice. The four signals were within 17 miles of one another.

"I believe we are searching in the right area, but we need to visually identify wreckage before we can confirm with certainty that this is the final resting place of MH370," said retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who's coordinating the Australian operation.

Could the pings be from MH370?
Hear possible 'ping' detected in search
A policewoman watches a couple whose son was on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 cry outside the airline's office building in Beijing after officials refused to meet with them on Wednesday, June 11. The jet has been missing since March 8. A policewoman watches a couple whose son was on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 cry outside the airline's office building in Beijing after officials refused to meet with them on Wednesday, June 11. The jet has been missing since March 8.
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
Photos: The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Photos: The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

The second piece of good news? Authorities analyzed the signals picked up over the weekend and concluded that they probably came from specific electronic equipment rather than from marine life, which can make similar sounds.

"They believe the signals to be consistent with the specification and description of a flight data recorder," Houston said. "I'm now optimistic that we will find the aircraft or what's left of the aircraft in the not too distant future."

How to hunt for pings

Signals getting weaker

Thursday is Day 34 in the search for Flight 370, which went missing March 8. Authorities are pinning their hopes of finding it on the pings.

Time is of the essence: The batteries powering the flight recorders' locator beacons are certified to emit high-pitched signals for 30 days after they get wet.

"The signals are getting weaker," Houston said, "which means we're either moving away from the search area or the pinger batteries are dying."

• The first signal, at 4:45 p.m. Perth time on Saturday, lasted two hours and 20 minutes, he said;

• the second, at 9:27 p.m. Saturday, lasted 13 minutes;

• the third signal was picked up Tuesday at 4:27 p.m. and lasted five minutes and 32 seconds;

• the fourth, at 10:17 p.m. Tuesday, was seven minutes long.

"It's certainly encouraging that more signals have been detected," Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told CNN. "There is still much work to do, however."

Four reasons to believe; six reasons to doubt

Scouring the ocean for debris

Though plenty of debris has been found, none of it has been linked to the plane, and so the search goes on.

Thursday's effort is set to include up to 10 military planes, four civil aircraft and 13 ships.

Three of them -- the Ocean Shield to the north, and the British HMS Echo and Chinese Haixun 01 to the south -- were focusing underwater.

What you need to know about a black box
Up to 14 planes in search for Flight 370
Hiding in another plane's shadow?

All told, everyone involved will be scouring a 22,400-square-mile (58,000-square-kilometer) zone centered about 1,400 miles northwest of Perth.

That's roughly the size of West Virginia.

But Thursday's search area is about three quarters of the size of the area teams combed the day before and far smaller than what it was a few weeks ago.

"I think we have got a much clearer picture around the areas that we need to concentrate on," Kevin McEvoy, a New Zealand air force commodore involved in the effort, told CNN's Erin Burnett from Auckland.

Authorities reduced that area after analyzing satellite data and concluding that Flight 370 set off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, toward Beijing, turned back over the Malay Peninsula, then ended up in the southern Indian Ocean.

Why? The answer may reside in the information stored inside the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder.

More pings raise more questions

The ocean to contend with

Hopes were initially raised when a Chinese ship detected pulses last Friday and Saturday that may have been from the plane.

According to McEvoy, "the main focus" now centers on the site of Ocean Shield's discovery. The ship used more advanced detection gear than that aboard the Chinese vessel, whose find was about 375 miles away, leading Houston to believe they are separate signals.

Beyond the dwindling battery life, the ocean also presents challenges: The Ocean Shield signals were in water about 2.6 miles deep, meaning any number of things could literally impede or otherwise disrupt the pulses.

To limit further roiling of the waters, officials are limiting sea traffic in the area. That's one reason that there's no rush to put drones in the water to take photos.

Another reason: Drones are painfully slow. The Ocean Shield towing a pinger locator can search six times the area than can a drone equipped with sonar, Houston said.

"The better the Ocean Shield can define the area, the easier it will be for the autonomous underwater vehicle to subsequently search for aircraft wreckage," he said.

What happens after the Malaysian plane's pingers die?

A painstaking process

The more pulses investigators detect, the more they will be able to zero in on the locator beacons, which emit signals for 5 miles in all directions, said Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Once they lose the signals, authorities will start the painstaking process of using side-scanning sonar to search the ocean floor.

Next steps in underwater search

Somewhat 'befuddling'

The absence of wreckage near the detected signals leaves some skeptical, worried that the Chinese and Australian ships' finds could mean more false leads in an investigation that's been full of them.

Acknowledging "a very high-speed vertical impact" could explain the lack of aircraft debris, CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien said. He said there's reason to be cautious.

"It's either the most extraordinary event, or those pings weren't real," he said. "It's somewhat befuddling."

In Beijing on a 10-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appeared to be hopeful but restrained. "There has been some new evidence here that maybe these new and emerging sounds may lead to something, but it's important we don't lift anyone's hopes -- the families of these passengers -- in an unfair way," he told CNN's Jim Sciutto in an exclusive interview.

Sarah Bajc, the partner of American passenger Philip Wood, told Burnett that she isn't sure about anything.

"All of us pretty well agree that, until there's the bulk of the plane, the bulk of the bodies discovered, and a black box intact, we won't believe that it's final evidence," Bajc said Wednesday from Beijing. "I don't think the authorities have given us much confidence of their investigative skills so far."

The lack of clarity makes it hard to "grieve properly and ... move on," she said.

"I want to fight to find him, in whatever form that ends up being," said Bajc, who is coordinating with other passengers' kin to press for answers. "And I think most of the families feel the same way."

Until he gets answers, Steve Wang, whose mother was on the plane, is clinging to hope while trying to hold himself together. "We're just going through so many kinds of emotion," he said of his position and those of other relatives of passengers. "Desperate, sad and helpless -- something like that. Everything."

How deep is deep? Imagining the MH370 search underwater

The hunt for a Flight 370 ping: How they are doing it

Timeline: Leads in the hunt for Flight 370 weave drama

CNN's Shirley Hung, Tom Watkins, Richard Quest, Catherine Shoichet, Jethro Mullen, Matthew Chance, David Molko, Will Ripley, Judy Kwon, Faith Karimi, Ben Brumfield and Mitra Mobasherat and journalist Ivy Sam contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
The search for MH370 is moving to an area farther south in the Indian Ocean, said the Australian Deputy Prime Minister.
updated 8:33 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
Erin Burnett speaks to Miles O'Brien about the latest in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
Ten experts say that the search for MH370 should move hundreds of miles away from the previous search area.
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
Families are desperate for results as the search for MH370 reaches a grim milestone. Anna Coren reports from Beijing.
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
Relatives of passengers are launching an effort to raise $5 million for investigations and a "whistle blower" reward.
updated 3:31 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
Making sure another plane is never "lost" again is the immediate priority for the airline industry.
updated 11:36 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.
Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
updated 5:05 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
updated 10:21 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
There is one fundamental question which continues to swirl: Has Inmarsat got its numbers right?
updated 8:13 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Data from communications between satellites and missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was released
updated 3:42 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Family members of the people aboard missing plane want independent investigators to review the newly released satellite data.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
CNN's Richard Quest explains what kind of information should be contained in the Inmarsat data from Flight MH370.
updated 8:46 PM EDT, Mon May 26, 2014
The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
updated 3:25 PM EDT, Tue May 6, 2014
The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.