The discovery of two large pieces of debris in the Indian Ocean that could be from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 seems to have brought up more questions than answers.
HLN spoke with Lt. Col. Ken Christensen, president of Integrated Aviation Solutions, former NASA liaison to the Department of Homeland Security and retired U.S. Air Force flight officer, to help answer some of those questions.
HLN: Do you believe the debris spotted via satellite could belong to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?
Ken Christensen: I think the broader scope is pointing to the plane going down in the water than it being over land. The search area is between Kuala Lumpur and Australia, and that’s where the debris field came up on the satellite. Everything is time stamped, so you could calculate the current and pin point where the plane could be. I suspect the search crews will find it tomorrow. That or it sunk. The debris or the plane. The plane would have broken apart, so if it was a piece of the aircraft, it would float for awhile, but then it sinks.
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HLN: What’s the likelihood of physically locating the debris? The satellite photo was taken on March 16 (four days ago).
Christensen: If that was to be the aircraft wreckage and they’re able to locate it visually and find the rest of the debris field, they’ll have to have a special ship come over there. That could take a week or two, depending on where the ship is. They need to have a lot of assets out there -- it’s rather labor intensive.
HLN: If they do find the debris and it does belong to Flight 370, what happens next?
Christensen: First, you want to make sure [to look for] survivors. You have to see if anyone is holding on to something that floats. If there aren’t any survivors, then it switches to a recovery mission from a search and rescue mission. But it’s going to be a race to find the underwater locator beacon (ULB) because it’s attached to the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) so you can find them. When the ULB battery hits the water, it emits [a beeping sound] for 30 days, and then the battery runs out.
HLN: What does it take to find the recording devices under water?
Christensen: You drag a sensor behind a boat or a helicopter, but you have to be in a local area because the ULB doesn’t transmit that far. The biggest thing -- [after finding survivors] -- is finding that beacon. If it’s been drifting 40 miles a day for 13 days, then you have to go in the opposite direction for that many miles. Then you put the acoustic sensor there and when you hear [the beacon], you put a GPS mark on it. Even with the underwater currents, the beacon is going to stay in that general vicinity. Then you take your time to recover it.
HLN: What’s a reasonable time frame for finding the recording devices?
Christensen: After the Air France Flight 447 crash, it took two years to recover them because the water was very deep there, almost 10,000 feet. And they had reliable positional data on where the aircraft was.
HLN: You can pull data from the recording devices even though they’ve been sitting under water for years?
Christensen: They’ll sustain under water for years. They can withstand a one-hour fire. They’re designed to take a 45-G impact and survive the crash. They’re put in the back of the airplane because if you have an impact, it’s going to be nose first, typically. The plane will crumple but these things will be left untouched, especially because they’re encapsulated and protected.
HLN: What kind of data could be recovered from the recording devices?
Christensen: The CVR will have the voice from the microphone in the cockpit, which is recorded on multiple channels. If it crashed, you want to know verbally what was going on in the cockpit when they were having issues. The FDR collects data: The speed of the aircraft, its heading, the engine RPM, rudder positions, flap positions, landing gear positions, etc. You can then superimpose the voice over the data and plug it into that particular plane’s flight simulator, and you can watch it as it crashes.
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HLN: What would you be looking for in the simulation?
Christensen: Did they lose cabin pressure? Was there a fire? Was there arguing in the cockpit? Was there a fight? Was there any sound of people getting killed? Etc.
HLN: Will this information ever be released to the public?
Christensen: Yes, it will be. The classified stuff they leave out, and you might not know that it’s left out. Here in the United States, for NTSB or FAA, it will be a year before they release anything, but the military puts out a report in 30 days.
HLN: If the debris is related to Flight 370, what is the likelihood of recovering the bodies of the passengers? Would autopsies be performed and what could we learn from that information?
Christensen: Autopsies [can help determine] the cause of the accident. If people have shrapnel in their skin, then there could have been an explosion on the airplane. The different chemical makeup of the deceased bodies could help determine the type of explosion. Was it a gas tank explosion? Did these people drown? Were they alive before they hit the water? Is there water in their lungs? Maybe the pilot dumped the cabin pressure and everyone passed out before they crashed? You’ll be able to tell all that post-forensically. But this type of data could be lost depending on how warm the water is and how quickly the bodies are decomposing. If they’re in 10,000 feet of water, it’s cold there and the bodies will be well-preserved. The science is messy, but it’s really important work. If that was your loved one on the plane, you would want to know. You may not want to know all the details, but you’d want to know that it was Aunt Mary in seat 6C. It gives closure.