Long Odds Search for Black Boxes

Now that searchers have found some floating remnants of Air France 447 in the Atlantic 430 miles (700 kilometers) north of the Fernando de Noronha islands, the hard work of trying to locate the Airbus’ “black boxes” – the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder – can begin. This is actually much worse than the proverbial needle in the haystack, because in that case, the assumption is the needle can be found after expending a lot of time and energy. These boxes might very well be truly lost to the abyss.

But of course they still must try to find them as well as any wreckage of the Airbus A-330.

To that end, a French research ship with a submersible capable of diving to a depth of 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) is steaming to the area.  The French transport Ministry says the ship carries equipment “able to explore more than 97% of the ocean bed area, specifically in the search area.” I some spots,  Atlantic is more than 20,000 feet deep in the area where searchers found the floating debris.

The submersible will be listening for the distinctive “pinging” noise that these boxes are designed to emit once they are submerged in water. They are supposed to “ping” for thirty days in water as deep as 20,000 feet. In ideal circumstances, the pings can be heard no farther than 5,000 feet away– so it is essential to send some “ears” deep beneath the sea in order to find the boxes. These sonar devices can be towed by ships or ply the deep on their own power.

The technique has paid off in the past. In 2007, the USNS Mary Sears used a towed underwater sonar to to locate the black boxes that were on board an Indonesian airliner that crashed on a domestic flight on January 1, 2007. The boxes for Adam Air Flight 574 – a Boeing 737 – were found at depths greater than 6,000 feet (1,800 meters).

But where, precisely should they search for AF447? Simply looking where the floating debris was found is not wise – as ocean currents and wind have likely moved those items away from the wreckage that lies beneath.

Remember, this aircraft was beyond radar coverage at the time it crashed, so finding a place to begin a search requires a little bit of sleuthing. That is precisely what meteorologist and blogger Tim Vasquez has done brilliantly here. If he is right, the wreckage would lie somewhere between 10,000 and 13,000 feet beneath the surface. Maybe that is within reach. Maybe.

Being a weather guy, Vasquez has taken his position hunch and mashed it up with the meteorological data at that time/place.  The results will make your blood run cold. AF447 flew into the maw of an extremely powerful line of embedded thunderstorms that rose to at least 51,000 feet.

“The aircraft was certainly within the bulk of an extensive cumulonimbus cloud field for a significant amount of time,” writes Vasquez.  “(The) storms could indeed have been a contributing factor to the crash.”

Remember, as I said in my previous post on this, it is seldom one single cause that brings down a modern airliner. But you have to wonder why the crew did not deviate from this extremely hazardous course.