‘Promising Lead’ Emerges in Hunt for Flight 370

PERTH, Australia (AP) -

After a month of failed hunting and finding debris that turned out to be ordinary flotsam, an Australian ship detected faint pings deep in the Indian Ocean in what an official called the “most promising lead” yet in the search for Flight 370.

Officials coordinating the multinational search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet still urged caution Monday after a weekend that also brought reports of “acoustic noise” picked up by a Chinese vessel also trying to solve the aviation mystery.

The Boeing 777 vanished March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people on board.

The focus of the search changed repeatedly since contact was lost with the plane between Malaysia and Vietnam. It began in the South China Sea, then shifted toward the Strait of Malacca to the west, where Malaysian officials eventually confirmed that military radar had detected the plane.

An analysis of satellite data indicated the plane veered far off course for a still-unknown reason, heading to the southern Indian Ocean, where officials say it went down at sea. They later shifted the search area closer to the west coast of Australia.

“We are cautiously hopeful that there will be a positive development in the next few days, if not hours,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in the capital of Kuala Lumpur.

But Angus Houston, the retired Australian air chief marshal who heads the search operation, added: “We haven’t found the aircraft yet.”

The Ocean Shield, an Australian ship towing sophisticated U.S. Navy listening equipment, detected 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 said.

Navy specialists were urgently trying to pick up the signal detected Sunday by the Ocean Shield so they can triangulate its position and go to the next step of sending an unmanned miniature submarine into the depths to look for any plane wreckage.

Geoff Dell, discipline leader of accident investigation at Central Queensland University in Australia, said it would be “coincidental in the extreme” for the sounds to have come from anything other than an aircraft’s flight recorder.

“Clearly, this is a most promising lead,” he said in Perth. “And probably in the search so far, it’s probably the best information that we have had.”

Little time is left to locate the flight recorders, whose locator beacons have a battery life of about a month. Today marks exactly one month since the Malaysia Airlines plane disappeared.