Four weeks after the Malaysia Airlines jet vanished, two ships deployed sound locators Friday in the southern Indian Ocean in a desperate attempt to find the plane’s flight recorders before their signal beacons fall silent.
Officials leading the multinational search for Flight 370 said there was no specific information that led to the underwater devices being used for the first time, but that they were brought in because there was nothing to lose.
The air and sea search has not turned up any wreckage from the Boeing 777 that could lead searchers to the plane and perhaps its flight data and cockpit voice recorders, or “black boxes.”
The recorders could help investigators determine why the plane, which disappeared March 8 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard, veered so far off course.
Beacons in the black boxes emit “pings” so they can be more easily found, but the batteries last only about a month.
Two ships with sophisticated equipment that can hear the pings made their way Friday along a 150-mile route investigators hope may be close to the spot where officials believe Flight 370 went down.
The Australian navy ship Ocean Shield towed a pinger locator from the U.S. Navy, while the British navy’s HMS Echo, equipped with similar gear, looked for the recorders in an area that investigators’ settled on after analyzing hourly satellite pings the aircraft gave off after it disappeared.
Because the Navy’s pinger locator can pick up signals to a depth of 20,000 feet, it should be able to hear the plane’s data recorders even if they are in the deepest part of the search zone — about 19,000 feet. But that’s only if the locator gets within range of the black boxes — a tough task, given the size of the search area and the fact that the pinger locator must be dragged slowly through the water at just 1 to 5 knots, or 1 to 6 mph.
The type of locator being used is a 30-inch cylindrical microphone that is towed underwater in a grid pattern behind a ship. It’s attached to about 20,000 feet 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.
Finding floating wreckage is key to narrowing the search area, as officials can then use data on currents to try to backtrack to where the plane hit the water, and where the flight recorders may be.
But with no wreckage found so far, officials can’t be confident they’re looking in the right place, said Geoff Dell, discipline leader of accident investigation at Central Queensland University in Australia.
“They might be lucky and they might start smack bang right over the top of it,” Dell said. “But my guess is that’s not going to be the case, and they’re in for a lengthy search.”
The area where crews are looking for the devices lies within a larger, 84,000-square-mile search zone that 14 planes and nine ships crisscrossed Friday in hopes of finding floating debris. The search zone is about 1,100 miles northwest of Perth on Australia’s west coast.