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Race is on to find Malaysia airliner's black boxes

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - Time is running out to find the crucial keys that could solve the mystery of how and why Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went down.

After the excruciating 17-day wait for confirmation that the Boeing 777 crashed into the southern Indian Ocean, searchers are racing to locate the so-called black boxes before a battery-powered ping they emit fades away.

By law, the boxes with must be able to send those signals for at least 30 days following a crash. But experts say they can continue making noise for another 15 days or so beyond that, depending upon the strength of the black box battery at the time of the crash.

Without the black boxes - the common name for the voice and data recorders normally attached to a fuselage - it would be virtually impossible for investigators to definitively say what caused the crash.

Now that some debris has possibly been found, here's what comes next:


The location of the plane is still unknown more than two weeks after it crashed, although Malaysian authorities say a British satellite company has pinpointed its last position in the Indian Ocean, where several countries have reported finding floating debris. It's now up to experts in ocean currents and weather patterns to give searchers their best estimate on where the plane actually went down, which is where the black boxes - they're really red cylinders - are likely to be located.

"We've got to get lucky," said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. "It's a race to get to the area in time to catch the black box pinger while it's still working."

To "catch" the signal, searchers will be putting to use a high-tech listening device loaned by the U.S. Navy.


One of the Navy's Towed Pinger Locators is already en route to the search area.

It's a 30-inch-long cylindrical microphone that's slowly towed underwater in a grid pattern behind a commercial ship. It will pick up any black box ping emitted from, on average, 1 mile away - but could hear a ping from 2 miles away depending upon a number of factors, from ocean conditions to topography to if the black boxes are buried or not.

The listening device is 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.

The device sends data up that long cable every half second, where both human operators and computers aboard a ship carefully listen for any strong signals and record a ping's location. The ship keeps towing the device over the grid so that operators can triangulate the strongest pings - and hopefully locate the exact location of the black boxes.

Aside from the Towed Pinger Locator, an Australian navy support vessel, the Ocean Shield, is expected to arrive in the search zone within three or four days, officials said. It's equipped with acoustic detection equipment that will also listen for pings.


If no strong signals are located before the battery on the black boxes fades away, then searchers must move on to using devices called side-scan sonar that creates an X-ray of the ocean floor, allowing experts to look for any abnormalities in the seabed or any shape that wouldn't normally be associated with the area.

The sonar devices can be towed behind a ship or used with unmanned mini submarines that can dive to the ocean floor for about 20 hours at a time, scanning the search area, mapping the ocean floor and looking for the wreckage.

This is how searchers found the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which went down in 2009 in the Atlantic between Brazil's northeast coast and western Africa. Underwater search vehicles scanned the mountainous sea floor and sent data back up to experts aboard ships that stayed at sea for a month at a time.

Finally, evidence of possible debris was detected by sonar. Another underwater vehicle with a special high-resolution video camera was sent in to allow scientists to visually inspect the area.

In the case of the Air France jet, it took over $40 million, four lengthy searches and nearly two years before the plane and the black boxes were found.

Join the discussion

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dnmbear March 24 2014 at 11:43 PM

Swift, powerful currents undersea can carry wreckage for hundreds of miles. Yes, there is a time constraint, and it may take a lifetime to find scattered derbis from the crash. Finding the hull of the aircraft along with any contents will be like "looking for a needle in a hay stack", because the ocean out there is the size of several large countries. If they don't find the "black boxes" and soon, the Indian ocean might just keep the wreckage for her own forever. A triple seven is a very large aircraft, as I saw one of the first while working an airport in North Texas, and I can tell you it is large. But the ocean has so many millions of square miles, it is really hard to imagine with the human mind. God rest all the souls that were on board, as with no cabin pressure at 35K, they died a painless death of being "put to sleep" at first , then being frozen solid long before the aircraft plummeted into the sea. Lack of oxegen because of the loss of cabin pressure, followed by "passing out", then finally being "almost flash frozen" at that altitude would make for an easy death. Minus 60 degrees and much lower temps at that height are pretty well the norm, so without cabin pressure and heat from the craft make it a sure death for every one on board.

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1 reply
M dnmbear March 25 2014 at 2:12 PM

People have little concept of the size of very large aircraft these days.
A serious wake-up for me was driving by the American Airlines museum just north of DFW airport in Texas. Just west of highway 360 is a building housing (possibly?) the first AA aircraft in a building section with three walls of glass windows. The twin propellor engine plane sits, in all its gleaming, polished aluminum glory, under a roof made from a (small) section of a large aircraft wing! The ENTIRE aircraft!
Since it is AA, I will guess it is a portion of a 747 wing, making the roof of that part of the Smith Aviation Museum. You can see that much just driving by on the highway... Yeah, it is THAT big! The aviation workers used to refer to the 747 as the aluminum overcast...

By the way, I am sure you meant this info as comfort to those family and friends of the people on board, and people following this story, but you presume a lot that isn't known in assuming a total loss of cabin pressure, and exposure to the air outside the aircraft. (or, maybe I just haven't heard "the latest" info yet).

RIP to those on board MH370.

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hnlkahuna1 March 25 2014 at 12:18 AM

toooo much drama

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rx901tn March 26 2014 at 2:25 AM

we only have one why not send 100 make your gps runs have side scan running also
stop all this slow **** and geter done . asap

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jchrisculp March 25 2014 at 12:43 PM

Pingers are good to 20,000 feet, not sure about the black box but I am assuming the way they are built it would be the same or more.

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Josephine March 25 2014 at 2:01 PM

It would be a "MIRACLE" if they found those black boxes right away!
They don't have much time!

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honeyrose3332 March 24 2014 at 8:42 PM

God be with the families and friends of the victims in this difficult time. May they find the black box soon so there can eventually be a resolution to what is still a baffling mystery.

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abarecchia March 25 2014 at 12:44 PM

Why cant they do both at same time? Save time and save money: TOWED PINGER LOCATOR and Side-scan sonar that creates an X-ray of the ocean floor could be done at same time?

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1 reply
JRivers abarecchia March 25 2014 at 1:11 PM

Both of those methods mean the sensor platform has to be VERY close to the pinger. The problem is that we are still talking about a search zone the size of Texas and the crash may still be outside that. Aside from pure dumb luck, you simply need a smaller search area before there is a chance of finding the "black" boxes with sonar or hydrophones.

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meezmos March 25 2014 at 1:45 PM

Black boxes should be built into an indestructible steel sphere that breaks free, floats and lights up during a crash, that way even if they plane ends up on the bottom of the ocean, it would still be easier to find....................and aircraft tracking? please,if someone uploads a photo to the internet I can find out their address by the embedded gps data, so why dont planes have the same thing....costs, like they tell us? BS, the airlines have plenty of money, besides theyre just going to pass the costs to their customers, so that is no excuse.........it is time for a change........boycott all airlines that dont upgrade NOW

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2 replies
ibeyour1 meezmos March 25 2014 at 5:10 PM

good luck with that. Are you ready for your plane tickets to jump $200-$300?

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vrcspro meezmos March 25 2014 at 6:41 PM

You want the blackbox to stay with the aircraft, so you can find the aircraft. The locating beacon is not just for the blackbox, it's for the aircraft as well.

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Margaret March 25 2014 at 5:27 PM

forget the black boxes!!! It's over!! Move on!!

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mrjoel2u March 26 2014 at 4:31 AM

I say put a few old Jewish women in a rowboat and tow them around. They can hear a pin drop for 5 miles. Trust me I know.

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