The batteries in Flight MH370’s black box and cockpit voice recorder that power their locator beacons are at the end of their of their lives. How much longer they work beyond their allotted 30 days is now a matter of unpredictable chance. This coincides with the most optimistic reports yet heard from the search area—the man in charge of the search, retired Australian air force chief Angus Houston, allowed himself to say, “I’m much more optimistic than I was a week ago.”
That is striking because it would be wise to use an abundance of caution, given how massive the search zone remains and how high the odds against a rapid success.
Air commodore Houston was responding to results from the Australian ship Ocean Shield. A special ping detector towed by the vessel had caught and held signals using the same wavelength as a flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. On one run, the signals were held for two hours and 20 minutes, on a second for 13 minutes.
The key thing is to be able to compute the exact origin of these signals: position and depth. This is what the technicians are desperately trying to achieve.
There has suddenly been a quiet but significant shift in the direction of the search away from debris. And the importance of this is that debris moves and black boxes do not. After a month any debris still floating would have been carried by winds and currents far from where the Boeing 777 went down.
In the absence of a known impact point, searchers would have an increasingly difficult calculation to make, in the event of finding wreckage, to track back from where the wreckage was found to the impact point.
I can’t figure out why, but the Australians have shown a high degree of confidence in fixing an area a little more than 1,000 miles northwest of Perth as the target zone for finding the flight data recorder. They took seriously a report from Chinese ship Haixun 01 that it had picked up pings consistent with those from a black box, and Australian and British warships fitted with more sophisticated tracking technology were rushed to the same area. The Ocean Shield’s results have served to accelerate the concentration of the search.
Bear in mind that it took more than two years before the flight data recorder of Air France Flight 447 was finally located 13,000 feet deep in the Atlantic. In the early days of that search, the French sent one of their nuclear submarines to join the search. It had advanced sonar—aimed not at the ocean floor but at other subs and shipping—and drew a blank. When the recorder was finally found, it turned out that the nuclear sub had passed very close to it, a fact that emphasizes the urgent need for the very specific ping-detecting technology now being used in the Indian Ocean.
Should the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder be found they would be rushed to a country with the specific laboratory equipment and technicians needed to download the data. In the case of Air France 447 the airplane and airline were French and the data went to the BEA, the French investigators in Paris. In this case the airplane is American and the obvious destination is the National Transportation Safety Board lab in Washington, D.C. as happened when a 777 operated by the South Korean airline Asiana crash landed in San Francisco. The NTSB also led the investigation into a serious battery fire aboard a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 at Boston Logan airport early last year.
Although the Malaysians have the role of a principal in the search and investigation, they have no technical resources to deal with black boxes. There were complaints that the Malaysians were slow to call in and consult experts from outside, but they have since learned how invaluable international assistance can be and are unlikely to quibble with a decision to send the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder to the U.S.—if, indeed, they are located.