How do ocean crash recoveries work?


(CNN) –

There are dozens of ships, aircraft and helicopters searching for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in an area nearly as big as the continental United States.

Now, 4-day-old satellite images have provided a much-needed lead: two objects spotted bobbing in the southern Indian Ocean, about 14 miles apart.

The race is on to find those objects — which experts caution could just as well be lost shipping containers as a chunk of fuselage or wing — and by analyzing currents and other data perhaps locate the site where the plane might have gone down.

Let’s say they find it. Would the mystery be solved?

Hardly. Finding the aircraft is just the beginning.

Assuming that the plane crashed and that it’s on the bottom of the ocean, search crews would face myriad obstacles in recovering parts of the plane and in piecing together what happened.

And the treacherous waters of the southern Indian Ocean would only add to the challenge, said John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Australian National University and expert on Australia’s radar systems.

“The problem is that that piece of flotsam and jetsam is not where it was when the photograph was taken four days ago. The currents have taken it a long way eastwards,” he said.

“So the aircraft are looking, in poor visibility, and this is the area that we used to call the ‘Roaring Forties’; this is in the 19th century the kind of waters that ships got wrecked in. So this is really treacherous stretches of water, not easy to work in, very hard to detect things in.”

The cases of TWA Flight 800 and Air France Flight 447 hint at the difficulties that might lie ahead.

The first demonstrates how tedious reconstruction work is and how important that work is to explaining exactly what went wrong, while the second shows just how long an ocean recovery can take.

“First thing to do is get back those recorders because … there’s a huge amount of data in the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. Get those back, and then we can see what we need to do next. But, you know, time is of the essence,” said Tom Haueter, former director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Office of Aviation Safety.

He knows what he’s talking about.

Debunking conspiracy theories

Haueter investigated the July 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, which exploded in midair shortly after takeoff from New York, killing all 230 people on board.

His job began at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy and other divers spent more than 1,600 hours scouring for clues.

“We found pieces from just forward of the center section of the wing. Then we found the nose of the aircraft. And then we found the wings and the tail, the engines and everything else further down the flight path,” Haueter said.

The NTSB ruled that the explosion was caused by an electrical short circuit, which detonated the fuel tank and caused the Boeing 747 to break into pieces in the waters off Long Island.

The evidence was pieced together from a debris field of 75 square miles. Thousands of fragments were pulled from a tangled web of wires and airplane skin.

“We map the bottom. You start recovering things. You get back seat cushions, victim remains, and what you do is X-ray everything, because you’re looking for an explosion. You’re looking for fast particles that may have been captured by a seat cushion or a body.” Haueter said.