PERTH, Australia - Search crews hunting for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet have failed to relocate faint sounds heard deep below the Indian Ocean that officials said were consistent with a plane's black boxes, the head of the search operation said today.
Angus Houston, the retired Australian air chief marshal who is heading the search operation far off Australia's west coast, said sound-locating equipment on board the Ocean Shield has picked up no trace of the signals since they were first heard late Saturday and early Sunday.
Time is running out to find the devices, whose locator beacons have a battery life of about a month. Today marks exactly one month since the plane vanished.
Houston said the Ocean Shield crew may spend several more days towing sophisticated U.S. Navy listening equipment deep within the ocean to try to find the sounds again. Only at that point, Houston said, would an autonomous sub on board the ship be sent below the surface to try to chart out any debris on the seafloor. If it maps out a debris field, the crew will replace the sonar system with a camera unit to photograph any wreckage.
Houston's comments contradicted an earlier statement from Australia's acting prime minister, Warren Truss, who said search crews would start the Bluefin 21 autonomous sub on today.
The towed pinger locator detected late Saturday and early Sunday two distinct, long-lasting sounds underwater that are consistent with the pings from an aircraft's black boxes - the flight data and cockpit voice recorders.
Houston dubbed the find a promising lead in the monthlong hunt for clues to the plane's fate, but warned it could take days to determine whether the sounds were connected to Flight 370, which vanished March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.
Finding the black boxes is key to unraveling what happened to Flight 370, because they contain flight data and cockpit voice recordings that could explain why the plane veered so far off-course during its flight.