Jet Hunt Patience a Virtue as Sub Search Can’t Be Rushed

As a submarine enters the second week of its search for Flight 370, veterans of sometimes lengthy undersea quests say it’s too early to write off the effort that has found no trace of the plane.

It takes hours for the robot sub to drop to the depths being scoured for the missing Malaysian Air jet, said John Fish, a participant in more than 20 attempts to find sunken aircraft. The Bluefin-21 submarine needs constant attention and its sonar requires methodical operation to ensure nothing on the seabed is missed.

“The deeper it is, the more complex the process gets and the longer it takes,” Fish, a principal of Bourne, Massachusetts-based American Underwater Search & Survey Ltd., said in an interview.

Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre said investigators have attended to a report unidentified material washed ashore 10 kilometers east of Augusta, in Western Australia. The country’s transport safety agency is examining photographs to determine whether it’s linked to MH370, the JACC said in a statement.

Almost 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) below the surface of the Indian Ocean, the Bluefin-21 is nearing the end of a sweep across a circular surveillance zone with a 6-mile radius. Even if that area proves empty, it’s reasonable to think that wreckage is nearby and will be located by widening the boundaries of the search, said Dave Gallo, director of special projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Sonar Scans

That area is the “bull’s-eye” where analysts estimated the Boeing Co. 777-200ER probably came to rest, based on where audio signals believed to have come from pingers on Flight 370’s crash-proof recorders were heard, Gallo said in an interview.

“What if it’s just outside that circle? That’s what I worry about,” he said.

The Bluefin-21 sub is bouncing sound waves off the pitch-black Indian Ocean floor to create images of the seabed in hopes of pinpointing debris from the plane, which vanished March 8 with 239 people on board. More than 80 percent of the target area has been checked without any “contacts of interest,” Australia’s JACC said today.

‘Won’t Abandon’

While the Bluefin-21 is patrolling an area with a 10-kilometer radius, pulses from Flight 370’s black boxes were heard more than 25 kilometers apart, according to a map released by the JACC on April 9. That means the search zone may not be that accurate and enlarging it, even by a small amount, may be needed, Gallo said.

For a second straight day, investigators had to suspend an air search because of foul weather, the JACC said in an e-mail. Three aircraft that had already departed to the search area were recalled while 12 ships continued scouring the region, it said.

“We are not going to abandon the families of the six Australian citizens who were on that plane,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Canberra today. “We are not going to let down the families of the 239 people who were on that plane by lightly surrendering while there is reasonable hope of finding something.”

Gallo, who helped oversee the search for Air France Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, knows how it feels when a search drags on.

No Doubt

An initial seafloor search in 2010 was unsuccessful because of errant estimates of where the wreckage had landed. Pingers on the Airbus A330 were never heard, forcing investigators to estimate the jet’s position from the location of surface debris.

The inability to find the main wreckage frustrated victims’ relatives and spurred whispers of a cover-up or ineptitude, Gallo said.

“We went through our share of that, and it’s no fun for sure,” he said.

Another expedition in 2011 by Gallo’s group at Woods Hole, which searched in an area closer to the plane’s final known position, was successful.

Technology in undersea searches has improved exponentially in recent decades, according to Gallo and Fish. The discovery in the 1980s of two celebrated shipwrecks, the luxury liner Titanic and the World War II German battleship Bismarck, helped spotlight the capabilities of deep-diving submersibles.

Today, there isn’t a spot in the oceans that can’t be reached by either people-carrying submarines or unmanned craft, Fish and Gallo said. The latest autonomous subs “fly” just above the ocean floor, using autopilot-like devices to rise and fall with the terrain.

They also navigate with great precision, allowing operators on deck miles above to know their location within a few feet. Sound waves pulsing to the surface communicate their movements. The challenge is knowing where to look, especially in deep water like the Indian Ocean’s where there is no natural light.

While time-consuming, the search technology makes it almost certain the plane will eventually be found, Gallo and Fish said.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Gallo said.

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