The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Amsa) gave a press conference on March 23, 2014, with an update on how a visual search was being conducted in an area which had been previously defined through the use of satellite imagery. Here is the transcription of the press conference, given by Amsa emergency response division general manager John Young and Mr Mike Barton, one of the rescue coordination centre chiefs, in full:
John Young: Good afternoon everyone. The operation today is a logical continuation from yesterday's operation. You might recall we define the search area based on satellite imagery. We now have a little more satellite imagery than previously. China provided us with an image last night, provided to us, and that we have incorporated that into our search planning. Today is really a visual search again. And visual searches take some time. They can be difficult. Our plan is to continue seeking to make sightings from the visual search, looking for the objects identified in the satellite imagery. We did make one sighting yesterday afternoon which was reported in Amsa's media release. And for just a little more detail, I will ask one of the rescue coordination centre chiefs, Mr Mike Barton, to give some very short rundown on the aircraft operations for the day and how we're following up on what was started yesterday.
Mike Barton: Today's search, as John...is about a visual search, a complete change of emphasis from earlier searching using radar. So we're into a more defined area based on the satellite imagery. We have eight aircraft searching today - four civil jets and four military aircraft. The nature of daylight in that part of the world means we're only just getting into searching now and the search will go on into late evening Eastern states time. The civil aircraft are crewed with emergency service volunteers who've been trained in aerial observer techniques in Western Australia, and we have used some from Victoria earlier as well, and a military aircraft. This is their professional bread and butter, the maritime patrol aircraft. The area continues to change as the water's movement changes and we continue to track down with self-locating datum buoys and we also seek expert opinions from organisations like the CSIRO, the United States coast guard and others. We put all that information together and any new intelligence that comes to us about satellites to formulate an area and we will redo it again tonight based on what observations might have occurred in today's flying and look to go out and search it again. And then we will do it again and again until we have some sort of closure or positive sightings in the area.
Q: Can we get more of a sense of what the visuals are yielding? There was reference to one yesterday. Has any more come in today? And just on...that happened to be a wooden pallet because reference has been made to that publicly.
Mike Barton: Yes, part of the description was a wooden pallet, and a number of other items which were nondescript around it, and some belts of different colours around it as well, strapping belts of different lengths. We tried to refind that yesterday with one of the New Zealand aircraft. And, unfortunately, they didn't find it, and that's the nature of it. You only have to be off by a few hundred metres in a fast travelling aircraft and so we've gone back to that area again today to try and refind it but also continuing on with a methodical search of the rest of the area looking for these objects which are showing up in the satellite imagery to try and give us some clues.
Q: Would a wooden pallet normally be associated with an aircraft? Or would the containers be more containerised...
Mike Barton: Yes, we asked the same questions ourselves. So we went to some of the expert airlines and the use of wooden pallets is quite common in the industry. They can be packed, they're usually packed into another container, which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft. But within that container, it's quite common to have items on pallets and then put into the other items. It's a possible lead, that we will need to be very certain that this is a pallet because pallets are used in the shipping industry as well.
Q: Any descriptions of other debris, has any description been put on other debris?
Mike Barton: Well, we're not describing as debris. What was described to us was a number of objects around which they couldn't quite determine what they were. The only other items that would give any real description were straps that were there, and again that could be anything, and so until we refind these items and have a good look at them, it's hard to say whether they are associated with this or not.
Q: And the search for debris that was located by the Chinese satellite, can yo update us as to what's happening?
Mike Barton: Well, again, that satellite showed an image of something that was in that area. It's consistent with other images from the early days of three or four days ago, in an area and the time and sizes. So again the focus of our visual search is to locate some of these items and just find out what they are. The difficulty appears to be that looking straight down from above and the satellite is showing an object of some description, they are giving us sizes but actually determining what it is from an aircraft, a lot lower attitude, looking into the sun or with the highs(??) and all the rest of it is proving difficult to relocate these items.
Q: What's the biggest challenge so far in the search?
Mike Barton: The challenge of this search hinges around its remoteness from anywhere. The aircraft are operating in extreme ranges from Perth, which is the closest airfield, then Raaf Base Perth, which is just up the road. And so at 2,500 kilometres away, they are operating at the limits of their endurance and only having a short period of one to two hours in the search area and then back again. So that's only allowing us to getting a singular search a day, which is again spreading the search out .for several days.
Q: Visuals on other objects. Have any reports of those come in subsequent to yesterday?
Mike Barton: No, yesterday was the first visual sighting we've had in the search so far. And today, as I said, because of the time zone difference, we're only just getting into some searching out there. So we're waiting to see what other observations are made out there. The weather was not as good today. Initially started, there were sea fog and low cloud out there. But the reports we're getting back now is that the western half of the area is quite clear. And it appears to be clearing to the east. So we're hopeful we're going to get a full search in with some good conditions.
John Young: Thanks very much, Mike. If there are any questions of a general nature, I will be happy to take them.
Q: Just assets in the days ahead, are they likely to increase, decrease or remain as they are?
John Young: We're likely to see an increase in the availability of assets. Two Chinese Ilyushin 76 aircraft flew into Perth yesterday. They are preparing themselves today and will be engaged in the search operations tomorrow.
Q: Has there been an indication from China, in particular that they have an unusually high degree of commitment to this ,greater than you would expect given where they are in the globe?
John Young: China clearly has an intense interest in this search operation. I believe they had 154 people on board the aircraft. And as we know from media reporting, the Chinese relatives and families are desperately concerned with the progress of this search. So China has offered two Ilyushin 76 aircraft, and there are a number of warships on the way to the area. The Chinese polar research and supply ship, Xuelong, which we worked with in an incident in January in the Antarctic, is now on the way to the search area. So China is very focused on assisting with the earch.
Q: Would it be reasonable to expect that having more ships in there now could help with the visual identification process, or do planes remain the best tool for that?
John Young: Actually you need both to do this perfectly well. You need aircraft to cover the large areas and get sightings. And you need ships or helicopters, but it's a very long way for a helicopter, but you need ships to actually get up close and potentially recover material, so that in fact it can be identified. Mike spoke earlier about identifying the pallet. That means really recovering it onboard, looking at the markings on it, for example.
Q: How many ships are involved in...
John Young: At the moment HMAS Success is the only ship that's active in the search. We released the merchant ship that had been there yesterday in anticipation of bad weather coming through. Chief was worried about cargo damage and had done three days worth of work. So we released her. I think it will be probably Tuesday that Chinese ships will start to arrive.
One last question.
Q: And on satellite imagery, has any nation or any agency or corporation indicated that there might be further supply of imagery of use?
John Young: We are taking our satellite imagery from the Australian geospatial intelligence organisation, who are doing the vacuuming up of material and processing and providing a service to us. And as was briefed earlier, China provided the satellite image to us last night. We didn't request it. China provided it. And that's the way that rescue organisations work with each other.
Could I finish by reminding everyone that our focus here is to define the very best search area that we can and we think if this aircraft took the southern corridor, we have the best search area that we can. As Mike indicated earlier it's been peer reviewed by other organisations and we have good aircraft, we have good controllers, we have good observers. So when we get the breaks in the weather, we will do the best visual search we can. Amsa still holds the gravest of concern.