KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 — Retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who led the initial search for Flight MH370, says he is not surprised that the Malaysia Airlines plane has yet to be found a year since it disappeared.
The 67-year-old former chief coordinator of Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) noted that it took Australia more than 60 years to find the wreckage of HMAS Sydney in 2008 after the Australian warship sank off the West Australian coast in 1941.
“From the outset, I expected the search for MH370 to be long and drawn out, so I am not surprised that the search continues as we approach the first anniversary of the disappearance of MH370,” Houston told Malay Mail Online in a recent email interview.
The Boeing 777-200ER, which carried 239 people comprising mostly China nationals, disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, China, on March 8 last year.
The last voice contact from the plane’s cockpit was made with air traffic control less than an hour after take-off at 1.19am and the commercial jet fell off the radar in the next two minutes, after which it diverted from its flight path and flew west across the peninsula.
No wreckage or bodies have been found since, with countless conspiracy theories surfacing as critics questioned the Malaysian government’s accounts of what had happened in the hours leading up to the disappearance.
The Australia-led search for Flight MH370, expected to end by May, is currently focused underwater on a 60,000 square kilometre section of the southern Indian Ocean off West Australia, with four ships using sophisticated sonar devices to scour the ocean floor.
Houston said his initial pessimism in finding the plane was reinforced by the searchers’ experience in the hunt for Air France Flight 447, where the wreckage was located almost two years after the jet crashed in 2009 in the Atlantic Ocean.
The former Australian Defence Force chief said the most challenging part of heading the massive search for Flight MH370 was providing effective coordination. At one point, 26 countries were involved in the search efforts.
Although Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Parliament Thursday that the search for Flight MH370 cannot continue at its current intensity “forever”, Houston said he feels “very strongly” that the hunt should continue.
“I remain cautiously optimistic that MH370 will be found. Malaysia and Australia have each provided A$60 million (RM171 million) to fund the underwater search which is ongoing and has covered 40 per cent of the priority search area.
“This phase of the search will continue until mid-year and hopefully at some point MH370 will be found,” he said.
Houston — who is no longer the JACC chief as he was charged to head the recovery of Australian victims in the downing of Flight MH17 in Ukraine last July — said the search for Flight MH370 was the “most challenging” operation he has been a part of, in terms of search, rescue and recovery work, over his 41 years of military service.
He said it is critical that all long-haul, international airlines be fitted with navigation, communications and flight monitoring systems that cannot be turned off or be tampered with.
Two communication systems on Flight MH370 were shut down separately in what experts reportedly believe was a deliberate move.
Houston said his involvement with both plane crashes has been very challenging emotionally.
“My heart goes out to all the families who had loved ones on both aircraft. I hope my efforts in both tragedies have assisted family members deal with very difficult and unprecedented circumstances,” Houston said, adding that he wished he could do more to ease their pain.