Flight 370 Salvage Harder Than Finding Needle in Haystack

While Malaysia’s conclusion that Flight 370 went down in the Indian Ocean may give closure to anguished family members, the search for wreckage in one of the planet’s most forbidding parts means the wait for answers to how and why may be a long time coming -- if ever.

Searchers came up empty again yesterday, the 17th day since the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. flight disappeared, as Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia said analysis of satellite data showed the flight “ended” in the ocean. Malaysian Air Chairman Md Nor Yusof said in a statement today that the aircraft was lost and “none of the passengers or crew on board survived.”

Even if objects spotted from aircraft and satellites can be located, the flight recorders that would unwind the mystery may be irretrievably lost in the abyss of the sea bed. The search for wreckage was suspended today because of foul weather.

For the 11-man crew on a U.S. Navy P3 Orion stationed near Kuala Lumpur, the hunt for Flight 370 has meant fruitless days in the air monitoring radars and cameras, fixated on water so glaring it’s impossible to make out where it meets the sky.

“I’ve been staring at the ocean for the past two weeks,” said Petty Officer Second Class Jaimeson Whiteley, gazing through a round window about 18 inches wide at the back of his aircraft as it flew about 400 miles southwest of Kuala Lumpur. “Your mind starts making stuff up for you to see.”

Strong Currents

Currents in the southern Indian Ocean are among the strongest on the planet, potentially moving objects hundreds of miles since the search began in the area. Some debris pulled up in the last two weeks turned out to be floating junk.

“At this point you’ve got two weeks’ worth of wind and ocean currents,” said Robert Mann, a former American Airlines executive who heads aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. of Port Washington, New York. “It’s going to be a difficult task to establish what the start point is.”

The world’s most sophisticated surveillance aircraft, with devices that can pick out a human from 30 miles and a life vest from 5,000 feet, have failed to find any trace of the jet in a search now in its third week.

HMAS Success from the Royal Australian Navy found nothing March 23, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, after an Australian Air Force P3 Orion cruising overhead saw a gray or green circular object and an orange rectangular item.

The Orion is a four-engine turboprop built by Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Maryland, and has been in service in the U.S. Navy since the 1960s. The $36 million plane was designed to find submarines before evolving in the past three decades to include a search role.

‘Drifting Needle’

Australia and the U.S. have also been using the P8-A Poseidon, a heavily modified version of Boeing’s 737 commercial airliner.

Because the search area is about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) from Perth, Australia, and farther still from other airfields, the surveillance planes burn most of their fuel loads going out and back, leaving only two or three hours to look each time.

“The expression ‘‘like finding a needle in a haystack’’ shouldn’t be used to describe search-and-rescue and recovery at sea,” Soufan Group, a New York-based security consultant led by former FBI counterterrorism specialist Ali Soufan , said in a briefing on its website. “A more accurate expression would be like finding a drifting needle in a chaotic, color-changing, perception-shifting, motion-sickness-inducing haystack.”

‘Going Crazy’

The Malaysia-based U.S. Orion, the first U.S. asset to join the hunt, yesterday flew its eighth mission, heading southwest from Subang air base outside Kuala Lumpur to scour 43,000 square nautical miles of the Indian Ocean. Time over target: six hours. Call-sign: Rescue 71.

For a crew trained to identify ships and submarines, it’s tough not knowing what to look for, said Brandon Yaeger, 21, an acoustic operator on the aircraft who joined the U.S. Navy three years ago.

“It could be pieces or it could be a vest,” he said. “My eyes are going crazy staring at the ocean.”

Investigators have determined the Beijing-bound flight from Kuala Lumpur was deliberately steered off course to the west and flown seven hours into open ocean at cruising speed. Whoever was piloting the jetliner turned off the plane’s transponder, which helps radar pinpoint location, and a text-to-ground messaging system.

The only information investigators had to locate the plane consisted of hourly pings to a satellite that contained data only on the plane’s identity.

Black Boxes

Investigators said March 15 that the plane’s last transmission probably came from the Indian Ocean, though until today Malaysian authorities were talking about also searching a potential northern route over land toward Kazakhstan.

Najib’s comments triggered accusations by a group representing Chinese passengers’ families that Malaysia was “delaying, hiding and covering up the truth.”

The best clues about who or what brought down Flight 370 would come from the two flight recorders, which pick up cockpit conversations as well as flight data. The so-called black boxes, which are actually bright orange to help find them in wreckage, emit pings for 30 days after becoming immersed in water.

While black boxes are designed to withstand depths of 20,000 feet and may work in even deeper water, the range of the pings is a mile, according to manuals from Honeywell International Inc., the maker of the equipment.

Daunting Quest

Without a signal from the boxes, finding the recorders will be a daunting quest, a task experienced by the search teams for Air France 447, which went down midway across the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. While debris was found within days of the crash and the flight path was known, it took investigators another two years to retrieve the recorders from the bottom of the sea.

The three French aircraft-accident investigators who went to Malaysia a week ago to provide advice on locating MAS370 returned to France over the weekend, the French BEA investigation bureau said in a statement yesterday.

“Such a vast area does not, at present, make it feasible to conduct undersea searches,” the BEA said in the release. “An undersea phase to localize the aeroplane from flight MH 370 could only be launched if the operations under way today enable a more limited search area to be defined than the current search areas.”

The P3 Orion crew’s biggest enemy is the weather, which can lay down a blanket of blinding clouds, said Chief Warrant Officer Jorge Guilloty, 34, the mission commander.

Its primary tool is radar.

“I’m the big picture,” said Francis Enriquez, 38, an air crewman first class from Florida who runs the plane’s radar, camera and metal detector from a booth in the cabin above the wing. “I can see in excess of 180 miles.”

All the same, the final tally after the six-hour search came to 52 fishing boats, one container ship and no trace of Flight 370.

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