CANBERRA/KUALA LUMPUR – Time is running out to find the crucial keys that could solve the mystery of how and why Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went down.
After the excruciating 17-day wait for confirmation that the Boeing 777 crashed into the southern Indian Ocean, searchers are racing to locate the so-called black boxes before a battery-powered ping they emit fades away.
By law, the boxes with must be able to send those signals for at least 30 days following a crash. But experts say they can continue making noise for another 15 days or so beyond that, depending upon the strength of the black box battery at the time of the crash.
Without the black boxes — the common name for the voice and data recorders normally attached to a fuselage — it would be virtually impossible for investigators to definitively say what caused the crash.
The location of the plane is still unknown more than two weeks after it crashed, although Malaysian authorities say a British satellite company has pinpointed its last position in the Indian Ocean, where several countries have reported finding floating debris. It’s now up to experts in ocean currents and weather patterns to give searchers their best estimate on where the plane actually went down, which is where the black boxes — they’re really red cylinders — are likely to be located.
“We’ve got to get lucky,” said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “It’s a race to get to the area in time to catch the black box pinger while it’s still working.”
To “catch” the signal, searchers will be putting to use a high-tech listening device loaned by the U.S. Navy.
One of the navy’s Towed Pinger Locators is already en route to the search area.
It’s a 30-inch-long (75-cm-long) cylindrical microphone that’s slowly towed underwater in a grid pattern behind a commercial ship. It will pick up any black box ping emitted from, on average, 1 mile (1.6 km) away — but could hear a ping from 2 miles away depending upon a number of factors, from ocean conditions to topography to if the black boxes are buried or not.
The listening device is attached to about 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) of cable and is guided through the ocean depths by a yellow, triangular carrier with a shark fin on top. It looks like a stingray and has a wingspan of 3 feet (1 meter).
The device sends data up that long cable every half second, where both human operators and computers aboard a ship carefully listen for any strong signals and record a ping’s location. The ship keeps towing the device over the grid so that operators can triangulate the strongest pings — and hopefully locate the exact location of the black boxes.
Aside from the Towed Pinger Locator, an Australian Navy support vessel, the Ocean Shield, is expected to arrive in the search zone within three or four days, officials said. It’s equipped with acoustic detection equipment that will also listen for pings.
If no strong signals are located before the battery on the black boxes fades away, then searchers must move on to using side-scan sonar via devices that send sounds to the sea’s depths and analyze the echo return to map the ocean floor. That allows experts to look for any abnormalities in the seabed or any shape that wouldn’t normally be associated with the area.
The sonar devices can be towed behind a ship or used with unmanned minisubmarines that can dive to the ocean floor for about 20 hours at a time, scanning the search area, mapping the ocean and looking for the wreckage.
This is how searchers found the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which went down in 2009 in the Atlantic between Brazil’s northeast coast and western Africa. Underwater search vehicles scanned the mountainous seafloor and sent data back up to experts aboard ships that stayed at sea for a month at a time.
Finally, evidence of possible debris was detected by sonar. Another underwater vehicle with a special high-resolution video camera was sent in to allow scientists to visually inspect the area.
In the case of the Air France jet, it took more than $40 million, four lengthy searches and nearly two years before the plane and the black boxes were found.
On Tuesday, gale-force winds and heavy rain halted the search for remains of the plane.
The weather was expected to improve so that the multinational search being conducted out of Perth, Australia, could resume Wednesday. But the searchers would likely face a daunting task in finding suspected remnants of the aircraft sighted earlier.
“We’re not searching for a needle in a haystack — we’re still trying to define where the haystack is,” Australia’s deputy defense chief, Air Marshal Mark , told reporters at a military base in Perth.
Australian and Chinese search planes spotted floating objects in an area 2,500 km (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth on Monday, but none was retrieved. Now, with the harsh weather and a 24-hour delay in the search, those objects and other possible debris from the plane could drift to an even wider area.
In remarks to the Malaysian Parliament, Prime Minister Najib Razak cautioned that the search will take a long time and “we will have to face unexpected and extraordinary challenges.”
Late Monday, Najib announced that the Boeing 777 had gone down in the sea with no survivors. But that’s all that investigators and the Malaysian government have been able to say with certainty about the flight’s fate since it disappeared on March 8 shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.
Left unanswered are many troubling questions about why it was so far off course. Experts piecing together radar and satellite data believe the plane back-tracked over Malaysia and then traveled in the opposite direction to the Indian Ocean.