Missing Plane Search: Crews Checking Debris Field Floating in Indian Ocean
(CNN) — What if this is it?
After days filled with dread that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may never be found, satellite images have sent down a ray of hope.
Australian authorities have spotted a large field of debris floating in the southern Indian Ocean more than a 1,400 miles off the southwest coast of Australia.
But satellites have been wrong before about MH 370. And Australian authorities warn that their pictures, too, could end in a goose chase and disappointment.
“This is a lead,” a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority cautioned. But even he could not hold back words of optimism.
“It is probably the best lead we have right now,” John Young said.
The find was important and credible enough for the Australian Prime Minister to stand up before parliament and announce it.
“Two possible objects related to the search have been identified,” Tony Abbott said.
If this is 'it,' the wreckage of MH 370 that departed Kuala Lumpur on March 8, what's next?
The race will be on to get to it.
The “blob,” as Young called it, needs to be physically found, and that could happen very quickly.
Part of that blob is big — 24 meters (79 feet) — leading officials to believe that it could be a chunk of the Boeing 777-200ER.
“The size and fact that there are a number located in the same area really makes it worth looking at,” Young said.
An Australian plane has flown over the area, and more are on their way, including at least one from the United States and one from New Zealand.
But the distance planes have to fly from land to get to the remote spot in the middle of the ocean burns a lot of fuel and leaves pilots less time to search the area, experts say.
They spend two hours combing the waters from the air, and the suspected debris is slightly covered in water, making it hard to spot from the air.
Once Australia's pilots have found the field, they will drop a buoy to mark the spot.
It will transmit data from the spot, aviation expert Bill Waddock said. This will help lead ships there. Otherwise, they might not be able to see the wreckage.
The area is known for high winds, and white capped waves could obscure debris, Waddock said.
And on top of that, a storm is approaching the area. It may have foiled one flyover.
The crew of Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion was unable to locate the two objects that satellites spotted, AMSA said is a tweet.
Clouds and rain made things hard to see.
That leads to the next step.
“What we're looking for is a confirmation that it does belong to the aircraft, or it does not,” Young said.
Once a ship has made it out to the suspected wreckage, some of it will be brought back to land for inspection, he said. The expanse of ocean, where it is found, presents problems of its own.
It has a reputation for housing a collection of floating garbage from around the world, and it could intermingle with plane parts that may be there.
That, too, could happen soon due to a stroke of luck. A merchant ship was fortunately not far from the suspected debris spot when the satellite images were announced, and it is pitching in on the search, Young said.
The merchant ship opens up great possibilities, said former CIA counter-terror expert Jeff Beatty.
It could act as a home base for the first salvage teams, especially if a helicopter can land on it.
U.S. teams could refuel helicopters in the air so they could make it to the ship way off Australia's coast and put divers into the water to look for smaller pieces of debris.
But there is a more pressing matter: Find the cockpit recorder and flight data recorder quickly.
Time could run out on that. The batteries powering their locating device should still have plenty of life, but eventually they will run dry, said David Soucie, author of “Why Planes Crash: An Accident Investigator Fights for Safe Skies.”
Retrieving the devices from the wreckage could also be agonizing, he said.
“The boxes aren't huge, but you still have to sift through a lot of debris. It's mangled; it's wrapped; it's twisted.”
The part of the aircraft that the devices are in — the tail — may have to be disassembled.
French rescuers have impressed the importance of finding data recorders quickly on Malaysia's leaders as well, the acting transportation minister said. It took that country two years to find them using a special submarine, after Air France Flight 447 went down in the Atlantic in 2009.
Malaysia does not have that kind of submarine technology, Hishammuddin Hussein said. Finding them while there is still a signal takes priority.
The insights the recorders can offer are potentially enormous. They could be invaluable to investigators analyzing pieces of the wreckage.
The flight data recorder collects information for the first 25 hours of flight and holds about 17,000 pieces of information, Soucie said.
And then there are the cockpit recordings.
A technical detail may prevent them from telling the world what went wrong with MH 370. The first hours will have been automatically deleted, if the device was functioning properly.
It only records for two hours, then it resets and re-records from the top over the previous two hours' recording, Soucie said.
“But the last two hours of what happened before this aircraft impacted could be really important to determine whether or not there was foul play,” he said.
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