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As time dwindles, search for Flight 370 shifts nearly 700 miles following new data

March 28, 2014 at 6:08 PM EST
A new discovery of debris shifted the search for the missing Malaysian airliner hundreds of miles northeast, three weeks after the jet disappeared. But time is fading before potential pings from the aircraft’s black box will end. Hari Sreenivasan turns to science correspondent Miles O’Brien for a closer look at the prospects for its retrieval.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The search for Flight 370 is resuming, but it has shifted by almost 700 miles, following new leads and new radar data about the missing airliner. It’s been three weeks since the plane first disappeared, and time is dwindling before some potential pings from the black box may end.

Hari Sreenivasan in our New York studio gets the latest on the investigation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, for that, we turn to our own Miles O’Brien. He’s a pilot, aviation analyst and our science correspondent.

So, help us understand this recalculation of the radar and how it impacted changing the location of the search.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, it’s kind of like, you know, a story problem from mathematics in middle school. Distance equals rate times time, and factor in one more thing, which is fuel consumption.

Anybody who’s driven down the highway, and you drive 80 miles an hour, you are going to be stopping for gas sooner. And the same goes for an airliner. If you’re flying faster at any given altitude, you will burn more fuel and you will go a shorter distance.

So, basically, what they have determined is that the aircraft went down to 12,000 feet, give or take, based on military radar returns on the primary target, the transponder being off, but they were able to determine roughly the altitude, and have concluded that, at that altitude, the aircraft was flying over what pilots call the red line speed, which would be 400 knots, 400 nautical miles an hour, true airspeed.

Now, that is as fast as you want to go at that altitude. And when you factor in all the distance equals rate times time and the fuel consumption, that puts them well short of Perth and at that location where they have moved the search.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, why is this information coming out now and not a week ago?

MILES O’BRIEN: I — I’m just as incredulous as you are, Hari. This is an investigation that’s very opaque. It’s difficult for us to draw any concrete conclusions, but the fact of the matter is, it shouldn’t have taken upwards of 20 days to draw this conclusion.

I think part of the problems is the Malaysians were late to kind of organize the investigation in a multinational way. And I think there is some national rivalries that are involved here and the fact that the information being shared is, in fact, based on military radar systems.

So there is a reluctance to share this information. You throw that all together in one pot, and you have data that has been analyzed probably a little later in the game than it should have been. And that’s a shame because the weather is terrible there, the conditions are awful, and it’s only going to get worse. Very soon, it will be winter, and they will have to suspend all searching.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, let’s say best-case scenario, the objects that they’re seeing from the aircraft today are parts of the plane. It’s still going to be pretty hard to find this underwater.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, we’re going talking 20 days of drift. Oceanographers are very good at figuring out the currents. They will do a pretty good job of trying to sort of backtrack the debris to see where the impact zone might be.

But there are big questions at this point. We’re getting to the edge of the expected life of the batteries inside those — the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, those so-called pingers, which can be detected using a hydrophone, an underground listening device.

It’s unclear if those — first of all, if they’re working in the first place, but assuming everything went well and to spec, there’s not much time to get that hydrophone underwater on station to see if they hear a ping.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is the geography of this new area beneficial to searchers? Is the water more shallow there? Is it closer to Australia?

MILES O’BRIEN: It is. It’s closer, which is really good news, because the land-based aircraft have had very little time on station, as it were, searching. They have had to fly four hours just to get there, a couple of hours on site and then four hours back. That’s obviously not a very efficient use of everybody’s time.

It’s closer to land now. There will be more time where they will be able to do search grids on station. That’s good news. As far as the depth goes, it still gets down to around 10,000 feet, a couple of miles, which, incidentally, is about the range of those pingers. And that’s why you need to put something underwater and get it down a little lower in order to try to get your best chance at hearing those pings.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And all this while the clock is ticking on whether those batteries have already run out or whether they are running out as we speak.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, and in the case of the Air France 447 crash in 2009, they actually did take the hydrophone right over the wreckage site and didn’t hear a ping within the time frame that the pingers should have been working. So it’s now thought those pingers never worked in the case of Air France.

So there’s no guarantee that there are in fact pinging. So there has to be concurrent with that efforts to use sonar and side-scan radar and other technologies to basically map the ocean floor in the area where they think the wreckage might be, because that may be the only way you find this wreckage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, as the batteries run out on these pingers and these boxes, does that change the psychology of the search?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, it does, but we don’t know exactly when they’re going to run out.

You know, 30 days is the specification. They may go longer. They may have already stopped. You don’t just searching just because it’s 30 days after. You continue to search using other means. And, really, the constraint is going to be Mother Nature here. Eventually, it’s going to be — the conditions are going to be too bad to search at all, and they will have to suspend for the winter, which is why I think they need more assets on station, additional aircraft, additional ships.

The U.S. Navy is ideally suited to provide the kind of tools that could really saturate, you know, sort of do a full-court press in the limited time available, either send an aircraft carrier down there or provide additional land-based search aircraft.

There’s got to be a more concerted effort and I think there are some reasons that that isn’t happening, but it should.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Miles O’Brien, thanks so much.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome.