A new clue has brought a bit of hope to the search for Malaysia Airlines' doomed Flight 370.
A closer review of one of the first failed efforts to contact the Beijing-bound flight from Malaysia as it vanished from radar March 8 has convinced authorities to focus their search on a southern section of the vast search zone over the Indian Ocean.
The review suggested the Boeing 777 may have turned south earlier than thought, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told The Star newspaper in Malaysia.
"The search area remains the same, but some of the information that we now have suggests to us that areas a little further to the south — within the search area, but a little further to the south — are of particular interest and priority in the search area," Truss said.
The jet is believed to have crashed more than 1,000 miles off the coast of Perth, Australia. Dozens of ships and planes have attempted to search a massive swath of the Indian Ocean, but no sign of the plane or it 239 passengers and crew has been found.
Investigators have long been aware of satellite phone calls, but it has taken until recently for them to develop methods to analyze the phone data to glean clues about the plane's direction, Truss said. It was through a similar analysis of satellite data from the plane's jet engine transmitter that investigators were able to define the current search area.
By the time the calls were attempted, the plane had become invisible to civilian radar. It had flown west without communications past Sumatra, Indonesia, and beyond the range of Malaysian military radar.
Truss told The Star that during efforts to map Flight 370's location when Malaysia Airlines tried to contact the jet, it was "suggested to us that the aircraft may have turned south a little earlier than we had previously expected."
"After MH370 disappeared from the radar, Malaysia Airlines ground staff sought to make contact using a satellite phone. That was unsuccessful," he said.
"But the detailed research that's being done now has been able to ... trace that phone call and help position the aircraft and the direction it was travelling."
It could take up to a year to scour 23,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean seabed and cost $48 million.Two survey ships are mapping the newest search area before any underwater minisubs are deployed.
The reason the search area remains so large is that the satellite handshakes used to track the plane only suggest its path and last known location. But fuel and gliding could have kept the plane in the air long after that.
By calculating the plane's fuel and speed, searchers are making an educated guess about where the plane might be. After the fuel ran out, the plane could glide 15 times farther than its height, so depending on how its controls were set it might have glided nearly 100 miles after the fuel ran out, according to Al Diehl, a former crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
"The final partial handshake is the most definitive piece of data we have about the plane's location," Diehl said. "It's a cone of uncertainty, just because of the aircraft's ability to glide without power."
For lack of detail, it could still take months to find the plane – if it is within the area where searchers are concentrating.
"Unless they just luck out," Diehl said.
Chinese Vice Minister of Transport He Jianzhong, who also attended a Canberra meeting Thursday where details of the continuing search were hammered out, said ministers of several countries had agreed that the search will not be interrupted or given up. Most of the lost passengers, 153, were Chinese.
Contributing: Associated Press; Bart Jansen in Washington, D.C.