PERTH, Australia — Four weeks after the Malaysia Airlines jet vanished, two ships deployed sound locators Friday in the southern Indian Ocean in a desperate attempt to find the plane's flight recorders before their signal beacons fall silent.
Officials leading the multinational search for Flight 370 said there was no specific information that led to the underwater devices being used for the first time, but that they were brought into the effort because there was nothing to lose.
The air and sea search has not turned up any wreckage from the Boeing 777 that could lead searchers to the plane and perhaps its flight data and cockpit voice recorders, or "black boxes."
The recorders could help investigators determine why the Malaysia Airlines plane, which disappeared March 8 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard, veered so far off-course.
Beacons in the black boxes emit "pings" so they can be more easily found, but the batteries only last about a month.
Two ships with sophisticated equipment that can hear the pings made their way Friday along a 150-mile route investigators hope may be close to the spot where officials believe Flight 370 went down.
"No hard evidence has been found to date, so we have made the decision to search a sub-surface area on which the analysis has predicted MH370 is likely to have flown," Cmdr. Peter Leahy, the commander of military forces involved in the search, said in a statement.
Australian Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, head of the joint agency coordinating the operation, acknowledged the search area was essentially a best guess. He noted that time is running out to find the recorders.
"The locator beacon will last about a month before it ceases its transmissions — so we're now getting pretty close to the time when it might expire," Angus Houston said.
The Australian navy ship Ocean Shield towed a pinger locator from the U.S. Navy, while the British navy's HMS Echo, equipped with similar gear, looked for the recorders in an area that investigators' settled on after analyzing hourly satellite pings the aircraft gave off after it disappeared.
That information, combined with data on the estimated speed and performance of the aircraft, led them to that specific stretch of ocean, Houston said.
Because the U.S. Navy's pinger locator can pick up signals to a depth of 20,000 feet, it should be able to hear the plane's data recorders even if they are in the deepest part of the search zone — about 19,000 feet. But that's only if the locator gets within range of the black boxes — a tough task, given the size of the search area and the fact that the pinger locator must be dragged slowly through the water at just 1 to 5 knots, or 1 to 6 mph.