Bloomberg News

Undersea Hunt for Jet’s Black Boxes Begins as Batteries Fade (1)

April 05, 2014

Bluefin 21

In this handout image provided by the U.S. Navy, The Bluefin 21, Artemis autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is hoisted back on board the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield after successful buoyancy testing April 1, 2014 in the Indian Ocean. Photograph: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Blair/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Crews hunting for the missing Malaysian airliner extended the search to beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean, listening for pings from beacons on the plane’s black boxes before the onboard batteries fail.

A Chinese patrol ship detected a pulse signal with a frequency of 37.5 kilohertz while searching in the southern Indian Ocean and hasn’t established whether it’s from the jet, the official Xinhua News Agency reported today. Underwater locator beacons transmit at that frequency. An Australian ship towing U.S. Navy sensors and a British vessel are also listening for pings from beacons on the black boxes.

Finding the cockpit and flight-data recorders is crucial to unraveling a mystery that began March 8 when contact was lost with the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) plane. The challenge is narrowing the surveillance zone to get close enough to hear the black boxes’ pingers as their batteries near the end of a lifespan of about 30 days. As many as 13 planes and 11 ships were searching for wreckage today, Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre said in a statement.

“The Australian Transport Safety Bureau continues to refine the area where the aircraft entered the water based on continuing groundbreaking and multi-disciplinary technical analysis of satellite communication and aircraft performance,” Australia’s JACC said.

The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Ocean Shield is scouring the sea floor with the U.S. Navy’s “towed pinger locator,” and the U.K.’s HMS Echo boasts “similar capability,” retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who heads the JACC, told reporters yesterday in Perth, Australia.

Difficult Find

It can be difficult to hear the pingers if they are blocked by undersea mountains. Layers of water with different temperatures can also reduce sounds.

Houston alluded to the race against the clock to detect signals from the pingers on the black boxes before their power gives out, saying, “We’re now getting pretty close to the time when it might expire.”

Today’s search focused on three areas within a broader patrol zone of about 217,000 square kilometers (84,000 square miles), 1,700 kilometers northwest of Perth, the JACC said.

Flight 370, a Boeing Co. (BA:US) 777-200ER carrying 239 people, was deliberately steered off its flight path to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur and onto a course that ended in the southern Indian Ocean, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said.

Lead Investigator

Malaysia will appoint an independent investigator to lead the team searching for the missing jet, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said today at a press briefing in Kuala Lumpur. Australia has accepted Malaysia’s invitation to be accredited to the team, and representatives from China, the U.S., U.K. and France will also be included, Hishammuddin said.

The Malaysian government has set up three ministerial committees to aid the search efforts, including one that will provide information and support to family members of those on the plane, according to Hishammuddin.

Investigators have relied on the limited contact between Flight 370 and an Inmarsat Plc (ISAT) satellite to draw up possible paths for the jet after it vanished from civilian radar. Planes and ships from Australia, Malaysia, China, the U.S., South Korea, New Zealand and Japan are taking part in the hunt, the longest in modern passenger-airline history between a disappearance and initial findings of debris.

“We’ve probably got to the end of the process of analysis and my expectation is, you know, we’re into a situation where the data that we’ve got is the data that we’ve got,” Houston said. “And we’ll proceed on the basis of that.”

Ocean Data

The Echo, launched in 2002, can collect military hydrographic and oceanographic data and carries a detachment of marines, according to the British navy’s website. British nuclear submarine HMS Tireless also joined the hunt this week.

The multinational air-and-sea search is costing a “lot of money,” Houston said yesterday, without giving a figure.

The U.S. military has spent more than $3.3 million on its role in the multinational hunt and may spend as much as $8 million before the search ends, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters April 2.

So-called black boxes are actually bright orange to help find them in wreckage. While designed to operate at depths of 3.8 miles (6.1 kilometers) and may work in even deeper water, the range of the beacons’ pings is a mile, according to manuals from Honeywell International (HON:US) Inc., the maker of the equipment. That may make the signals hard to pick up even if an underwater microphone is over the correct location.

Locator Beacon

The underwater locator beacon transmits at a frequency of 37.5 kHz a second, according to a document posted on the website of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

In the search for wreckage of Air France (AF) Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil in 2009, authorities were able to focus on a 6,700-square-mile area after finding objects adrift five days following the crash. They also had a last known position and four minutes of signals from a jet-messaging system dubbed Acars, which was shut off on Flight 370.

Even with those clues, the pings from Flight 447’s recorders weren’t picked up. It took two voyages over almost a two-year period to find the debris field with unmanned underwater vehicles.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Heather Langan at hlangan@bloomberg.net Jeffrey St.Onge


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