One of the most hostile environments in the world… According to the investigator who led the inquiry into the Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic in 2009, the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight in the southern Indian Ocean will be much harder.
Finding the now silent black boxes is just part of the major challenge of retrieving anything. The ocean promises to stretch technology to extremes.
US Navy Captain Mark Matthews said the Bluefin-21 submarine drone will be operating in very difficult conditions.
“The current depth that the system will be operating in is right at its rated maximum, so that is certainly a concern. That’s what it’s rated to operate into but anytime you push something to its limits you’re always concerned about how the performance is going to be. The silty bottom we’re also concerned about. Typically, we do find debris still sitting on top of silt, but it depends on the density and the weight of the object.”
The search is focusing on an area about the size of a medium-sized city (600 sq km), where the last pings believed to have come from the plane’s black boxes were detected, at a depth of around 4,500 m. That is deeper than the wreck of the Titanic found in the Atlantic in 1985, and of the Air France debris.
The tallest man-made structure in the world, at 829.8 m, is a skyscraper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, known as Burj Khalifa. It featured in the Mission Impossible film Ghost Protocol. Cinema-goers may recall that its dizzying height reduces to a speck the view of a person at ground level when ‘seen’ from above. The Indian Ocean search depth is more than five times the height of Burj Khalifa.
Inevitably, comparisons are being drawn with the search for the Rio-Paris jet that crashed in 2009.
Officials say it could take the Bluefin-21 underwater robot months to scan and map the whole search Indian Ocean zone.
The Air France operation took two years and cost an estimated 32 million euros; the MH370 search cost that much in the first month alone.
Twenty-six countries have taken part in the effort. Australia, leading this operation, has so far contributed around half the cost. The other big spenders are the United States and China.
There’s no telling what the final bill will be. This is expected to be the costliest search in aviation history. The longer it continues, the more countries may have to consider their financial commitment.