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Flight 370 search: Probe of current area should be done in a week, official says

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(Photo: MGN Online)

The underwater drone scanning for traces of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 should complete its task in the zone under scrutiny within a week as the search for the plane intensifies, a government official said Saturday — day 43 of the effort.

“Today and tomorrow, it’s imperative that we focus because the experts have narrowed down the search area,” said Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian acting transport minister. Then, citing a comment made this week by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, he said, “Whatever the outcome of the next few days, we need to regroup and reconsider the operations.”

Are searchers close to finding debris from the jetliner? “It’s difficult to say,” Hishammuddin said. “The narrowing of the search today and tomorrow is at a critical juncture. I appeal to everybody around the world to pray and pray hard that we find something to work on over the next couple of days.”

Failure to find clues to the plane’s disappearance does not mean that the operation will stop, only that other approaches — such as a wider scope or the use of other assets — may be considered, he told reporters. “The search will always continue,” he said.

Still, he said, “With every passing day, the search has become more and more difficult.”

Mother Nature won’t make this task much easier.

Tropical Cyclone Jack is circulating northwest of the search area. And while it won’t hit directly, this system should increase winds and rains on Sunday into Monday.

The developments come a day after a senior Malaysian aviation source told CNN’s Nic Robertson that investigators have concluded that the jetliner deviated March 8 from its flight plan during its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing while it was still inside Vietnamese airspace.

It turned left, then climbed to 39,000 feet — below its peak safe limit of 43,100 feet — and maintained that altitude for about 20 minutes over the Malaysian Peninsula before beginning to descend, the source said.

Why would such a move have been made? That question and many others — including the current whereabouts of the plane — have been asked by investigators and relatives of the 239 people who were aboard the plane when it went off course and off radar screens.

Investigators have also determined that the missing jet was equipped with four emergency locator transmitters, or ELTs. When triggered by a crash, they are designed to transmit their location to a satellite.

The ELTs were located at the plane’s front door, its rear door, in the fuselage and in the cockpit, said the source, who was puzzled over why they appear either not to have activated or, if they did activate, why they were not picked up by the satellite.

But the ELT is not designed to operate under water, according to Steven Brecken, a spokesman for Honeywell, which makes the Rescue 406 AFN ELT used on the Boeing 777-200ER. “The ELT serves as the emergency beacon when an aircraft crashes on land, where the recorders are more easily found,” he wrote on the company website.

No comment from Malaysia Airlines

Malaysia Airlines has declined to answer CNN’s questions about the ELTs and other matters pertaining to the flight.

The airline said it could not comment on “any questions that relate to information held by other authorities and/or fall under the jurisdiction of the ongoing investigation.”

Saturday’s search was to include up to 11 military aircraft and 12 ships across three areas off Perth, Australia. They were to cover about 20,000 square miles (50,000 square kilometers) amid isolated showers, Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre said.

But searches from air and ships are probably nearing an end, officials have said.

That didn’t surprise former U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Managing Director Peter Goelz, given the results so far. “There’s a lot of resources being expended there; it’s turned up nothing,” he said.

Overnight, Bluefin-21 completed its sixth underwater search mission and has covered some 50 square miles (133 square kilometers) to date. “No contacts of interest have been found,” the JACC said.

After downloading its images, the Bluefin-21 initiated a seventh mission. Each cycle takes 24 hours — two hours to descend, 16 spent looking, two hours to ascend, and four hours to download images.

Hishammuddin said Saturday that the images it has captured have been “clear and sharp.”

Hishammuddin tweeted Friday that authorities were weighing whether to deploy more unmanned underwater probes.

The current search area has been set based on the detection of pings believed to have been transmitted by the locator beacon attached to one or both of the “black boxes.”

If the search of this area fails to yield evidence of the plane, officials might consider expanding their scrutiny to an arc highlighted by a partial digital “handshake” between the jetliner and an Inmarsat PLC satellite, said Martin Dolan, Australia’s top transport official.

That arc of sea is more than 370 miles long and 30 miles wide.

A prolonged undersea search by private contractors could cost a “ballpark rough estimate” of $234 million, Dolan said.

Passengers’ relatives list questions

The continuing search efforts came as relatives of the people who were aboard the jetliner pressed for answers.

They have drawn up 26 questions that they want addressed by Malaysian officials, who are to meet with them next week in Beijing. Most of the Flight 370 passengers and crew were Chinese.

Among their questions: What’s in the flight’s log book? Can they review the jet’s maintenance records? Can they listen to recordings of the Boeing 777 pilot’s conversations with air traffic controllers just before contact was lost?

Hishammuddin has defended his government’s handling of the operation and accused members of the media of focusing on the Chinese families. He said relatives of passengers and crew from other nations represented have not had problems.

“The most difficult part of any investigation of this nature is having to deal with the families,” he said.

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