A Malaysia Airlines that took off with more than 200 people on board has been missing for nearly three days, and a massive search of the South China Sea has turned up nothing conclusive.
While lots of theories on what happened have been floated, we won’t have any good answers until officials get their hands on the plane’s “black boxes” — the flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR).
This disappearance brings back memories of Air France flight 447, which went missing over the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009. It was five days before any debris was found, and nearly two years before the FDR and CVR were found.
Fortunately, there’s no reason to think the search will take so long this time around.
The flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder in the Boeing 777-200ER are each mounted with an underwater locator beacon. When water hits the beacon, it automatically starts transmitting a signal, said Anish Patel, president of Radiant Power Corp., a subsidiary of aerospace supplier HEICO Corporation, which produced the Dukane DK120 underwater locator beacon used on many aircraft.
Patel was not sure who made the beacons on the missing Boeing 777-200ER, but said, “it’s a high probability that it’s ours.” Boeing would not comment on any aspect of the situation, except to say it “will join the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board team as a technical advisor.”
Once active, the Dukane DK120 emits a pulse once a second that can be detected by sonar equipment up to two nautical miles away. The beacon works at a depth of 20,000 feet — far deeper than the waters where officials believe the Malaysian plane went down.
It’s made to stay active for at least 30 days, per an FAA requirement, but may last a few days longer than that, depending on when it was made.
Lawrence Stone, chief scientist at Metron Scientific Solutions, says the beacons weren’t found after the Air France crash because they didn’t function properly. Metron, a consulting company, was hired by the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA) to help find the wreckage after early efforts failed.
The team found both black boxes but only one beacon, which didn’t work when hooked up to a battery, Stone said in an interview, noting “those things are pretty hardy.” Patel told Business Insider the beacons are built to meet regulatory standards, and have “proved reliable in other recovery operations.”
Both men said that finding the beacons from the Malaysia plane should be much easier. The water in the search area is much shallower than that in the south Atlantic, and the area is more accessible. Asked if he’s surprised the Malaysia search has turned up nothing so far, Patel said no. “It’s a big ocean.”
Stone said, “if the pingers are working, it should be an easy search.”
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