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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lessons From Another Missing Plane: Air France Flight 447

A handout picture from the Brazilian Navy press office shows crew members of the Brazilian Frigate 'Constituicao' on June 7, 2009, recovering debris from Air France flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1. (Brazil Navy Press Office via AFP/Getty Images)

A handout picture from the Brazilian Navy press office shows crew members of the Brazilian Frigate ‘Constituicao’ on June 7, 2009, recovering debris from Air France flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1. (Brazil Navy Press Office via AFP/Getty Images)

The search continues for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 239 people that disappeared in route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing more than three days ago.

This isn’t the first time a large commercial flight has mysteriously disappeared. The 2009 vanishing of Air France flight 447 over the Atlantic from Rio de Janeiro to Paris was shrouded in mystery for years. That crash killed 216 passengers and 12 aircrew.

Engineer Mike Purcell of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution headed one of the underwater search missions for the plane. He speaks with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about the Air France recovery and his thoughts on today’s search.

Interview Highlights: Mike Purcell

On how you know where to look, given the currents

“One of the roles that Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution could play in this instance is, if we now start to find debris, is to project a path of that debris over the last days. You know, the oceanographers can look at currents, look at winds, look at the waves and they can sort of project the path of an object as it’s drifting on the surface. And that’s pretty customary to do this in man overboard events and that same technique would be used this time to sort of predict the point at which the debris started to float and disburse over the ocean.”

On how tides and water depth could affect the search

“I think this event, which probably has happened in shallow water, will be easy to find once the searchers determine a starting point. It’s just there’s a lot more equipment available, the search can be done faster in the shallower water and so I think that will be a benefit in this instance. I think that the important thing is to find a good starting point.”

On whether anything should have been done differently in the Air France search

“Well, it’s hard to project what happened, I think. And so lots of times with a search like this, it comes down to using the right equipment and persevering. It obviously took us a long time to find the Air France flight. You know, it’s sort of a remote location, 500 plus miles offshore, made it difficult to be out there. I mean typical ships could be out there for 30 days but then they had to come back in. But I think perseverance and using the right equipment will result in locating the remains of the airplane.”

Guest

  • Mike Purcell, principal engineer in applied ocean physics and engineering at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well now to the latest on the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, still missing after vanishing from radar four days ago. Officials are now saying that military radar suggests the plane turned away from its planned route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and headed west. So an international has expanded to include the Malacca Strait, which is between Malaysia and Indonesia.

As for those two men traveling with stolen passports, officials say they are Iranians with no known links to terrorist groups. Here's Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble.

SECRETARY GENERAL RONALD NOBLE: In the last 24 hours, you see the story changing as the belief becomes more certain that these two individuals were probably not terrorists. The interest seems to be dying down because they might just be people who are being smuggled or trafficked.

HOBSON: Still the CIA director, John Brennan, tells CNN today that he is not ruling out terrorism. Well, as the search for the jet continues, many people are looking back to an accident in 2009 when an Air France jet flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris went down in the Atlantic Ocean. The first debris was spotted within five days, but it took searchers almost two years to find the plane itself, along with black box data.

Mike Purcell is a principal engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He headed one of the underwater search missions for the Air France flight, and Mike, you were called in after they had found debris from Flight 447 and had an idea of where the wreckage was. But as you were looking at the sea floor, how did you go about looking for the wreckage?

MIKE PURCELL: We used some autonomous underwater vehicles that were developed here at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and, you know, our procedure was to run each of the three vehicles every day over a segment of the sea floor, and we used acoustic sensors to try and find the debris site, and it took quite a while. We did not find it in 2010 after about 50 days at the site.

When we went back out in 2011, we found it on about the ninth day.

HOBSON: Yeah, well, how do you even know where to look because of course these pieces can be dispersed, and they can move around at all times with the currents, right?

PURCELL: Yeah, I think that one of the roles that Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution could play in this instance is, if we now start to find debris, is to project a path of that debris over the last days. You know, the oceanographers can look at currents, look at winds, look at the waves, and they can sort of project the path of an object as it's drifting on the surface.

And that's pretty customary to do this in man overboard events and that same technique would be used this time to sort of predict the point at which the debris started to float and disburse over the ocean.

HOBSON: Does it make it easier to find debris in a shallower area like we're talking about off the coast of Malaysia, whichever side of the peninsula that it's actually on, if it is in the water, than it was for Air France? Because I have also heard that the shallower water means the tides might be more significant, and that may move things around.

PURCELL: I think this event, which probably has happened in shallow water, will be easy to find once the searchers determine a starting point. It's just there's a lot more equipment available, the search can be done faster in the shallower water, and so I think that will be a benefit in this instance. I think that the important thing is to find a good starting point.

HOBSON: Looking back to your experience with Air France 447, is there anything that should've been done differently in the search?

PURCELL: Well, it's hard to project what happened, I think. And so lots of times with a search like this, it comes down to using the right equipment and persevering. It obviously took us a long time to find the Air France flight. You know, it's sort of a remote location, 500 plus miles offshore, made it difficult to be out there.

I mean typical ships could be out there for 30 days, but then they had to come back in. But I think perseverance and using the right equipment will result in locating the remains of the airplane.

HOBSON: Now you went in as a scientist, but as you're dealing with a crash that has, in the case of Air France 447, killed so many people, and you're looking at things that may have belonged to some of the passengers on the plane, is it emotional to do that?

PURCELL: Well, it's definitely emotional, and you realize what a tragic event has occurred when you see the crash site. It has an effect on your approach to doing these kind of things.

HOBSON: Mike Purcell is a principal engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He headed one of the underwater search missions for Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic, which crashed in 2009. Mike, thanks so much.

PURCELL: You're welcome, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Tim

    What was the musical interlude at the this segment (after Mike Purcell finished talking)? I know that sometimes you post the music list from the show, but I couldn’t find it for this segment. I loved the interlude, and I’d love to hear it again!

  • Steve G

    Way to go Mike!!! I thought of you immediately when I heard about the search for this jet, and here you are.

  • Pete2

    Chris, they are simply waiting for you to make it all better, right straight through a click of a button all the way from a deep bottomed couch … ;-)

    • Chris

      Your comment doesn’t add to the discussion. You could apply your logic to almost any comment made here, including your own and the meaning wouldn’t change. Just because I don’t work for a transport organisation and am therefore not in a position to improve things, it doesn’t mean I can’t make an informed comment and doesn’t invalid any of my points. Please be more specific relating to any disagreements/errors in the points I’ve made if you wish to actually contribute something meaningful to the discussion.

  • Patrick McCann

    I resent this – the two stories are completely different. Air France was known to have crashed shortly after the story broke. Every plane accident is ‘shrouded in mystery’ for a time until the black box is examined. Flight 370 is entirely its own story and unlike the French crash totally.

    • Paulo

      I agree. The search area for Air France 447 was just a small fraction of the possible location of MH 370. I don’t see any chance of finding the Malaysian airplane.

  • xuamox

    Yes, why can’t aircraft have emergency locator beacons that can survive a crash, are automatically released on impact, and float to the surface, and start transmitting location information immediately. Something like this: http://www.sarsat.noaa.gov/emerbcns.html

    Also, airlines should consider adding a satellite phone that flight attendants could use in case of an emergency. It would be nice to give them the ability to communicate if pilots become incapacitated. Inmarsat offers this service as well http://www.inmarsat.com/.

    This search will turn out to be the most expensive search and recovery operation in aviation history, and probably run around $50 million dollars. Who is going to pay for that? Why should the airlines and aircraft manufacturers not be forced to provide better technology to locate missing aircraft?

  • bishu

    It is ridiculous to halt the search operation for the missing Malaysian flight 370. They can immediately deploy submarine with nuclear propulsion which can sail in adverse weather condition, have long range & locate the debris & probably recover them.

  • CyPontuo

    This is interesting to read weeks later. Makes me wonder how it just so happens “coincidence or not” the plane ended up in the media/public information eye to be in the most remote dangerous place in the ocean as well as the deepest waters , I mean “ever”. It just seems like quite a shift form the early reports as evidenced in this article and interview.

  • Chris

    There is one theory that I’ve come up with that has yet to be discussed yet as well. An accident CAUSING a pilot suicide. What if the normally mentally-stable pilot due to negligence made a mistake that killed most/everyone on board (e.g. depressurisation, oxygen, altitude). In a panic, he decides that instead of a life in jail and living with the shame and guilt he brought upon himself and his family, ditches the plane as far away and in as remote a location as possible so that no-one would ever know what happened. By ditching, there would be no debris so it would be almost impossible to find. He could justify it ethically as everyone would already be dead. I don’t think that the black box and FDR will tell us much. The CVR will likely have 2 hours of silence and the FDR will likely just confirm the trajectories that we already know. I think the key to this theory will be autopsies, inspection of the plane’s structure and if the plane is fully in tact, who was sitting in the pilot’s seat.

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