The U.S. Navy announced plans Monday to move a "black box locator" to Perth, Australia, in case debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is found in the southern Indian Ocean. The statement was covered breathlessly, with some media outlets calling it a potential game-changer. But a word of caution: the black box locator faces logistical nightmares that prevented it from being effective in other similar searches in the past. Authorities, in other words, may learn where the flight went down -- but they'll have a harder time finding the device capable of explaining why.
The high-tech system on the way to Perth is known, in military-speak, as the Towed Pinger Locator 25. Like its predecessors, the system uses a high-powered underwater microphone known as a hydrophone to search for acoustic "pings" coming from beacons mounted on the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder in a downed aircraft. They're commonly known as "black boxes," although they're usually orange. The pinger locator, made by Phoenix International of Largo, Md., is about 30 inches long and weighs 70 pounds. It closely resembles a miniature torpedo, complete with fins, and is pulled on a long underwater cable behind a ship. It can detect pings from up to 20,000 feet under the sea.
Bill Lawson, who oversees the pinger locator program for Phoenix International, said that if the beacons on the downed airline's black boxes are still transmitting, his equipment will find them. Towed pinger locators have found numerous aircraft in the past, including the downed Adam Air Flight 574, which crashed on Jan. 1, 2007, while flying over the Makassar Strait while flying between the Indonesian cities of Surabaya and Manado, killing all 102 people on board. After the Indonesian government government asked the United States for help, the U.S. Navy found it at a depth of between 4,900 and 6,200 feet using a towed pinger locator on the USNS Mary Sears, Navy officials said. The current version was first fielded in 2010. One year later, it managed to find a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier that crashed in the Gulf of Aden near Oman in 2011 shortly after takeoff, said officials with Phoenix and the Navy.
Even if the locator sent to Perth is used perfectly, however, it is by no means certain that it will be able to do the job. Consider the case of Air France Flight 447. It crashed off the northeast coast of Brazil on June 1, 2009, killing all 216 passengers and 12 air crew members. The U.S. Navy provided two pinger locators by Phoenix International, but they were towed through the search area for about 30 days without any success. At that point, the first phase of the search was called off because the battery life on the black box transponders was all but certainly dead. It took another two years for the recorders to be recovered, and it occurred only after the bulk of the wreckage was found by robot submarines in April 2011.
"They found that the pingers were damaged and unoperational," Lawson said -- meaning the Navy's black box locator wouldn't have worked.
Malaysian authorities said Monday that they now believe Flight 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean southwest of Perth. The massive Boeing 777 disappeared March 8 with 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board after diverting from its planned flight path from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing, China. All on board are believed to be dead.
There are a range of unknowns that will determine whether the pinger locator has any more luck finding the Malaysian flight than it did with the Air France one. First, the part of the Indian Ocean where the airline crashed is believed to be as much 23,000 feet deep, a potentially major problem given that the pinger locator can only operate to depths of about 20,000 feet. Second, Navy officials won't start using the device until they have a much more specific sense of where the plane went down. The black box's beacons have a 30- to 40-day battery life, so precious time will be lost while authorities search for debris or other evidence of where the plane crashed. And that's to say nothing of the condition of the black boxes themselves, which -- like Air France's downed airline -- may not be transmitting pings following the crash because they are damaged.
"This movement is simply a prudent effort to pre-position equipment and trained personnel closer to the search area so that if debris is found we will be able to respond as quickly as possible since the battery life of the black box's pinger is limited," said Navy Cmdr. Chris Budde, the operations officer for the Navy's 7th Fleet, which has coordinated U.S. involvement in the search.
The Pentagon began moving the pinger locator and an underwater drone to Perth on Monday, said Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. About 10 U.S. personnel will travel with them to set up the equipment, the admiral said. He did not clarify whether they are civilians or with the Navy. The United States also will send an underwater drone known as the Bluefin-21 to help with the search, the admiral said. It is capable of searching up to 15,000 feet deep.
The search for a debris field, meanwhile, is continuing off the western coast of Australia, where tough weather has hindered efforts at times. Australian officials suspended the search for the day on Tuesday, March 25, citing stormy weather that had whipped up winds of more than 50 mph, heavy rain and rough seas. On Monday, Australian military personnel in a P-3 Orion spy plane spotted floating debris about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth, but it was unclear whether it was part of the downed airline. The search is expected to continue this week when the weather clears. U.S. forces now have a detachment of naval aviators based in Perth, where they are flying the new P-8 Poseidon spy plane in search of the missing airline's remains.
U.S. Navy photo