As Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak prepares to travel to Perth to thank those searching for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, Australia’s former defence chief has warned the operation could take a long time.
Mr Najib will arrive on Wednesday and stay until Thursday, visiting the RAAF Pearce air base to the city’s north, the departure point for the seven-nation search effort.
Danica Weeks – the wife of missing Perth passenger, Paul Weeks – visited the air base on Tuesday, prompting Air Chief Marshal Houston to urge the mother-of-two to come to the new Joint Agency Co-ordination Centre near the West Australian parliament for a full briefing.
He also passed on his personal phone number to her.
Air Chief Marshal Houston is leading the centre, which has taken over from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority in co-ordinating the search and distributing information about it.
He said the operation would be pursued with vigour, but with no objects pulled from the Indian Ocean identified as being from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, it could drag on for weeks, maybe months.
“I have to say in my experience – and I have got a lot of experience in search and rescue over the years – this search and recovery operation is probably the most challenging I have ever seen,” he told reporters in Perth on Tuesday.
The last known position of the plane was a long way away from the area being examined and until some debris was found to narrow down the search, it “could drag on for a long time”.
“I say that because the starting point whenever you do a search and rescue is the last known position of the vehicle or aircraft.
“In this particular case, the last known position was a long, long way from where the aircraft appears to have gone.
“We’ve been searching for many, many days and so far have not found anything connected with MH370.”
Air Chief Marshal Houston said it was not known what altitude and speed the aircraft was travelling at and authorities were relying on the best information available.
“I think at this stage that it’s very important to pursue all the leads,” he added, as 10 planes and nine ships, some with helicopters, resumed the search.
He also said updated information about the pilot’s final words provided some “clarity”.
The pilot was originally reported as signing off: “All right, goodnight”.
But it emerged on Monday that he had actually said: “Goodnight Malaysian three seven zero”.
“The last communication was more formal than what was reported some weeks ago,” Air Chief Marshal Houston said, and declined to comment further.
Defence Minister David Johnston said about a week remained to find the plane’s black box, given the satellite “pinger” had about 30 days of battery life and the aircraft vanished on March 8.
“It depends on the temperature of the water and water depth and pressure as to how long the battery power will last,” Senator Johnston told ABC radio.
He said it would take two or three days for the Australian naval vessel Ocean Shield, which has been fitted with a pinger locator, to reach the search zone, some 1850km west of Perth.
A fourth Australian ship, the Seahorse Standard, left on Tuesday to assist with surface sweep operations and would take five days to reach the search zone, the Department of Defence said.
Commodore Peter Leavy said search vessels were experiencing strong winds and heavy seas but conditions were expected to ease. “The priority remains to find objects that can be linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370,” he said in a statement.