Military planes scouring for the missing Malaysia jet received their best lead yet Thursday after analyzed satellite images revealed possible plane debris in the Indian Ocean.
But the search protocol and procedure for pinpointing any wreckage — and retrieving the essential black-box data — remains a laborious if near impossible task, experts say. The search zone, about 1,500 miles off the coast of southwestern Australia, is deep and daunting.
“It’s the middle of nowhere,” Chari Pattiaratchi, a professor of oceanography at the University of Western Australia in Perth, told NBC News. “It’s literally in the middle of the ocean where nobody goes because it’s so rough.
"Any search there would be incredibly challenging. It could take years.”
He added that any surface debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may have already floated some 300 miles away since the plane vanished on March 8 from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing. Officials believe the jet with 239 people on board was deliberately flown off course not long after the red-eye flight took off — and had enough fuel to fly another eight hours.
On Thursday, aircraft and ships headed for the remote location where two objects — one about 79 feet long and the other 16 feet long — appeared to be floating in water several thousand meters deep, Australian officials said.
With visibility limited, the planes, including a U.S. Navy P-8 aircraft, came up empty. The planes are flying out of Australia to a distance roughly as far as New York City to Denver. The P-8 can fly about 9 hours, about four of those spent searching while the rest is travel time back-and-forth.
A Royal Australian Navy ship is still days away from reaching the scene.
'Armada' should be deployed
The satellite images were taken by U.S. company DigitalGlobe on Sunday, but the Australian maritime agency said they weren’t immediately available “due to the volume of imagery being searched, and the detailed process of analysis that followed.”
Now, the U.S., Australia and other surrounding countries should quickly deploy “an armada” of cutting-edge aircraft to look for possible debris, said Alan Diehl, a former investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
“It’s literally in the middle of the ocean where nobody goes because it’s so rough. Any search there would be incredibly challenging.”
But even if debris is found within days, it doesn’t mean the black boxes are nearby, especially if the plane plunged the depths of the Indian Ocean some 12,000 feet.
Wreckage from the doomed Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009 was found within days, but it wasn’t until two years later when the voice and data recorders were fished out of the Atlantic Ocean during a renewed search effort.
“It was akin to looking in the Rocky Mountains for a couple of shoe boxes at night with a flashlight,” David Gallo, who co-led the search for the Air France flight, told NBC's TODAY show.
That search effort used an underwater drone called a Remus 6000 that was able to travel four miles per hour as it scanned the ocean floor. It took high-definition pictures, and among the first objects it found was a backpack.
ERIC A. PASTOR / AFP - Getty Images
Naval aviators assigned to Patrol Squadron 16 pilot a P-8A Poseidon plane in air over the waters of the Indian Ocean during a mission to assist in search and rescue operations for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
The elusive black box
Diehl described any surface wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight as mere “breadcrumbs” to finding what really counts: the elusive black boxes.
The military planes will be able to use sonar to listen for “pings” coming from the black boxes’ beacons. The devices, which are actually orange, are designed to work as far down as 20,000 feet of water and within 2 miles.
But the black boxes could be hard to reach.
“There could be cliffs, valleys and other geographic obstacles that could mask or truncate the signal,” said Anish Patel, president of Dukane-Seacom, which makes the beacons used by Malaysia Airlines.
The beacons have the battery life to last 30 days, although they could keep working a few days more depending on how new they are. That only gives search crews about two more weeks to find the black boxes via their beacons. Otherwise, it will be much more difficult.
“This is kind of like the Apollo 13 rescue,” Diehl said. “It’s a running clock. We’ve got to move.”
If the beacon’s signal is detected, either divers or robots will be needed to retrieve the black boxes.
Diehl said the information on those recorders — flight data logs and cockpit conversations — would likely yield information to solve the mystery of what happened.
“The flight data recorders have over 100 channels of all kinds of information,” Diehl said. “Did the plane depressurize? Did the pilot initiate that turn? There’s a lot of data on the black boxes. The technology to find it all out is there.”
But to throw another wrench into the search: There may be no wreckage found at all if the plane managed to crash — and subsequently sink — into the ocean in basically one piece.
“It might have gone down without any debris,” Diehl said. “This could be another Amelia Earhart situation.”
NBC News’ Henry Austin and Jim Miklaszewski contributed to this report.
First published March 20 2014, 11:37 AM