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Australia cautions hunt for MH370 will be arduous

PERTH, Australia -- Investigators are conducting a forensic examination of the final recorded conversation between ground control and the cockpit of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 before it went missing three weeks ago, the Malaysian government said Tuesday. Meanwhile Australia, which is coordinating the search for the Boeing 777, cautioned that it “could drag on for a long time” and would be an arduous one.

The forensic examination could shed light on who was in control of the cockpit and will also seek to determine if there was any stress or tension in the voice of whoever was communicating with ground control — crucial factors in an air disaster investigation.

Responding to repeated media requests, the Malaysian government also released a transcript of the conversation, which showed normal exchanges from the cockpit as it requested clearance for takeoff, reported it had reached cruising altitude and left Malaysian air space.

“Good Night Malaysian three-seven-zero,” were the final words received by ground controllers at Kuala Lumpur's international airport at 1:19 a.m. on March 8. On Monday, the government changed its account of the final voice transmission which it had earlier transcribed as “All right, good night.”

The hunt for Flight 370 has turned up no sign of the jetliner, which vanished March 8 with 239 people on board bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

The search area has shifted as experts analyzed the plane's limited radar and satellite data, moving from the seas off Vietnam and eventually to several areas west of Australia. The current search zone is a remote 254,000 square kilometer area roughly a 2 1/2-hour flight from Perth.

On Tuesday, Australia deployed an airborne traffic controller to prevent collisions as search planes fly over the Indian Ocean.

An Australian air force E-7A Wedgetail equipped with advanced radar was making its first operational flight, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority tweeted. Earlier, Angus Houston, who heads the joint agency coordinating the multinational search effort, said the modified Boeing 737 will monitor the increasingly crowded skies over the remote search zone.

On Tuesday, 11 planes and nine ships were focusing on less than half of the search zone, some 120,000 square kilometers of ocean about 2,000 kilometers west of Perth, according to the Joint Agency Coordination Center.

Low clouds, rain and choppy seas hampered search efforts Tuesday. One aircraft, a Japanese coast guard plane with high-performance radar and infrared cameras, completed just one of its three planned passes over the search area, then turned back because of the conditions. It descended to just 150 meters above the whitecaps at one point, but the crew members still couldn't see anything out the windows.

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Volunteers from Taiwan's Buddhist association offer prayers for the Chinese passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at a hotel in Beijing on Tuesday, April 1. (AP)

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