Underwater Technology Searches For Missing Flight

Ten months have passed since Air France flight 447 crashed mysteriously in the Atlantic, killing all 228 people aboard. The black boxes were never found and the search abandoned. For the next month, scientists will conduct an unprecedented search using the latest underwater technology.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

It's one of the unsolved mysteries of aviation: the crash of Air France Flight 447. The plane was en route from Brazil to France last June when it disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean with no warning. All 228 people aboard were lost, and the flight recorders were never found. This week, a new search begins, using some of the most sophisticated underwater technology in the world.

NPR's Christopher Joyce has the story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: There was no last-minute message from the crew of flight 447, and not much information on exactly where it disappeared, as this NBC News report at the time attests.

(Soundbite of NBC News broadcast)

Unidentified Man: The Brazilian Air Force is now searching some 1,500 miles off the coast of Rio, but to underscore how uncertain this whole thing is, they also launched planes from Africa to search on that side of the Atlantic Ocean.

JOYCE: Five days later, searchers started finding debris and bodies, but a massive air and sea search did not turn up much more. The flight recorders were never found.

This week, the French aviation agency, BEA, is sending two ships to a new ocean site. They're guided by scientists who worked backwards from where the debris and bodies were found. By studying wind and currents during the five days after the crash, they figured out the place in the ocean where the debris must have started from.

Dave Gallo at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a member of that scientific team.

Dr. DAVE GALLO (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution): They actually have some very good ideas about where they believe that plane impacted the ocean, and that's what allowed us to formulate this brand new search area, which is very interesting, because it's nowhere near where they searched on the bottom before.

JOYCE: It's a patch of ocean floor about 10 by 30 miles across along the eastern slope of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Dr. GALLO: It's going to be rugged terrain, just like the foothills of the Rockies. So, up and down thousands of feet, ridges and troughs and valleys and whatnot. So, it's not going to be easy.

JOYCE: Working aboard a Norwegian research ship, the Woods Hole team will operate three unmanned, underwater probes. Two of them belong to the Waitt Institute for Discovery. Mike Dessner is the institute's operations chief.

Mr. MIKE DESSNER (Operations Chief, Waitt Institute for Discovery): Essentially, they're 12-foot-long, 28-inch-wide torpedoes that run autonomously from any surface control tether and have the capability to dive down to full ocean depth.

JOYCE: The institute unveiled these vehicles in 2006 in the Pacific. They were used in an unsuccessful underwater search for the plane that adventurer Amelia Earhart disappeared in 73 years ago. Each vehicle employs sea floor-scanning sonar, as well as cameras.

Mr. DESSNER: Primarily, what the vehicles will be used for is to detect the debris field. Then the vehicles will go into more of a site survey mode, which they will work with a much higher resolution to identify much smaller targets.

JOYCE: The ultimate targets are the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. The first records communications by the crew. The data recorder compiles information about the plane's performance and operation. Both have signaling beacons, but they probably are no longer functioning.

Sarah McComb, chief of the vehicle recorder division at the government's National Transportation Safety Board, says the recorders are tough, though.

Ms. SARAH MCCOMB (Chief, Vehicle Recorder Division, National Transportation Safety Board): They're designed to be able to survive a minimum of up to 20,000 feet of hydrostatic pressure. We have not done any recoveries that deep.

JOYCE: But the new search site is only about half that deep, so theoretically, the recorders could have survived.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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