Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott surprised a lot of people Friday when he said, “We are confident that we know the position of the black box flight recorder to within some kilometers.” The man leading the search for the remains of Malaysian Flight MH370, air marshal Angus Houston, had not been anywhere near as specific as this. Had the prime minister, talking to a Chinese audience, got out ahead of the professionals in an excess of enthusiasm?
Only 24 hours earlier, air marshal Houston had put the size of the search area at 18,000 square miles. Following Prime Minister Abbott’s announcement some Australian sources are claiming that the area was now reduced to 10 kilometers by 10 kilometers—about 36 square miles. If true, that’s a dramatic advance in the feasibility of finding where the Boeing 777 went down.
How could this have come about?
Geoffrey Thomas, editor-in-chief of AirlineReview.com, told a radio station in Perth that a ping detector towed by the specially equipped Australian vessel Ocean Shield has let specialists aboard British warship HMS Echo triangulate the data and get a far more accurate “fix” on where four pings were coming from on the seabed.
“Echo has done a radio scan,” said Thomas, “an echo scan if you like, along the bottom and they’ve had a return which is positive, which may indicate the wreckage of the plane.
One thing is for sure: Since the Ocean Shield reached the area roughly 1,000 miles northwest of Perth, the search took a much more productive turn. After weeks of false reports of floating wreckage spotted by satellites, suddenly all talk of chasing floating wreckage ended, and attention moved to the Ocean Shield and its ping detector, which moves through the ocean a mile beneath the ship.
Although the Ocean Shield belongs to the Royal Australian Navy, it’s crewed by civilian specialists. It only went into service in the summer of 2012. It was built in Norway and is classed as an offshore support vessel. The Australians intended to use it as part of a disaster relief task force but it turned out to be ideally suited to the challenge of finding Flight MH370: it has a massive 60-ton crane that would be able to raise wreckage from the water and was able to deploy both the ping detector and the Bluefin 21 robot submersible that would be the first device launched if the location of the flight data recorder was confirmed.
Unfortunately, because it took weeks to establish that the most likely last resting place of the Boeing 777 was 700 miles further north than originally believed, the Ocean Shield only left Perth on March 31 and arrived in the zone as the power in the location beacon batteries was beginning to fade. But the ship had luck on its side. On its second day of tracking along a 205-mile long arc, it picked up signals “consistent with a black box recorder.” This was quite a feat, considering that the seabed in this region is 2.8 miles below the surface, very poorly mapped, covered in a layer of silt, and in complete darkness. Signals coming from a beacon at that depth are affected by large variations in the water temperature.
The presence of HMS Echo is particularly significant—she has very sophisticated underwater mapping technology, and would be able to give a much better sense of just what the seabed looks like—its contours and its depths.
The Bluefin 21 is able to work at those depths, at first using sonar and then, if probable wreckage or the flight recorders are detected, it will be fitted with lights and cameras to establish whether they have, in fact, reached the right place. However long that takes, the search has come a very long way in just a week.