I recently had the sad task to fly low over the Philippine sea in an attempt to find 5 men in a small raft. A yacht had gone missing several weeks before in a typhoon. The official search had been called off but the family wanted to search several areas that had not been covered. We searched for 2 days but didn’t find anything except flotsam and garbage. I thought I would take the opportunity to re-post this blog I wrote on the first news of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 which has never been found. The same principles apply. I can’t help but think there are 5 men in a raft floating somewhere in a large and lonely sea just like there are pieces of Flt 370 still out there somewhere. Here is the re-posted blog from last year.
An entire airliner lost at sea? The Malaysia Airlines Boeing B777 is a big aircraft.
The Gulf of Thailand expanding into the South China Sea, however, is much bigger. Success in finding this aircraft will be a massive exercise in coordination and cooperation. I have been directly involved in many missing aircraft searches, two specifically that were airliners and two helicopters at sea, and so far I have not seen anything in the news reports that give the families of the passengers much hope. The ocean is vast but there are ways to narrow down the possible search zone and pinpoint the crash location.
Even when using modern technology the principles of narrowing the field and conducting a meaningful search are the same:
- Determining the most likely search area (circle of probability) using basic airmanship, physics and logic.
- Time of last known radio transmission
- Last reported position or fix
- If May-Day call – resulting glide path
- If no May-Day call – resulting rapid decent cone
- Wind, weather and sea state
- Location references
- ATC radar reading directly from aircraft transponder signals (such as FlightRadar24 uses)
- Radar Reading from emergency transponder 7700 code selected by the pilots
- GPS aided ADS-B reading from transponder – works passively and is very exact
- GPS satellite flight following systems – works passively and is very accurate
- COSPAS-SARSAT reading from 406 MHz emergency locator signals (EPIRB and ELT) triggered by pilots during an emergency or on impact (deceleration meter)
- Choose the right search vessels or aircraft
- Helicopters can search lower and slower to easier spot a debris field
- Aircraft must have the range and the ability to fly low and slow
- Aircraft must have large windows where spotters can easily look down and outward
- Vessels must have the ability to have spotters get low to the water to pick up debris
- Once the search vessels are in the vicinity
- Trained spotters and pilots who know how to spot useful debris fields
- Forward looking infrared cameras (FLIR) for night or low visibility searches
- GPS self reading data buoys dropped in known location of crash to determine ocean currents and likely drift of any survivors.
- Deepwater Sonar Locator triggered by submersion in water and sends out a sonar pint that specialized equipment uses to locate a submerged aircraft and the flight data recorder (the black box)
If the missing aircraft was equipped with all or most of the above then we would not be getting such basic reports such as I saw this morning. If the vessels and or aircraft had been properly selected and equipped then we might already have had some results. The biggest factor to success is to keep the search concepts simple. The most imminent danger to an aircraft will bring it down immediately. In the order of most likely: flying into a severe thunderstorm, electrical fire on the flight deck, sudden decompression in the flight deck, catastrophic structural failure or air-to-air collision. Thus that is where you start your search. Right where it disappeared or lost communications. If the aircraft crew simply lost communications then it is pointless trying to project where they would run out of fuel. It is point less trying to chase “leads” of fragmented or unsubstantiated radio calls or radar returns (blips). Deal with those later as more concrete evidence comes in. For the now search the immediate cone of rapid response.
Also don’t expect any survivors. Don’t even expect to find recoverable bodies. The impact an aircraft makes during a high speed uncontrolled descent after a catastrophic failure will destroy the aircraft and everybody on it beyond imagination. The human bodes will simply explode and virtually disappear. In the two airliner impact sites I found, one from an air-to-air collision and the other from structural failure after flying into a severe thunderstorm, there were no recoverable bodies.
We found everything from crumpled airliner seats, twisted pieces of aluminum, tattered torn suitcases, crushed briefcases and fully intact wallets and passports – passports are amazingly impact proof – but no bodies. After finding one such downed airliner the Chairman of our air service (not the airline that crashed) called and asked that I retrieve his nieces body so they could wash her and give her a proper burial. She had been coming to visit her favorite uncle. All we eventually found was small blue and blood-soaked sweater that the family identified as hers.
- Keep it Simple
- Start the search immediately in the vicinity of the last transmission
- Do not chase ghost or fragmented signals
- Search low as possible – 1000 to 500 feet above sea level
- Use expanding down current grid boxes is current known or identified
- Use expanding fixed position grin boxes if current unknown or unidentified
- Use aircraft with large windows and trained or well briefed spotters
- Look for debris with color – usually yellow, orange or red. The ocean has no color and therefore all color is man-made.
- Ignore white or brown unless the shape has been identified as significant.
CBC reported that Vietnamese air force jets pilots spotted two large oil slicks offshore. In my experience of flying over the world’s oceans finding an oil slick means next to nothing for several reasons:
- Oil tankers, although they are not supposed to, often clean their tanks at sea.
- Fishing ships and freighters often dump used engine oil overboard after maintenance.
- Most eye witnesses can’t tell the difference between different types of oil or oil product spills especially at altitude.
Turbine engine oil, refined or unrefined crude, diesel, gasoline and especially JetA1 fuel all have different properties and react and show differently when disbursed on the surface of water.
For a simple example:
- Unrefined crude will clump on fresh water and foam quickly on seawater. turning a light brown. It is easy to spot at altitude but easy to miss in that it doesn’t always look like what we expect oil to look like.
- Processed oil is darker and will likely spread uniformly making it hard to spot.
- Turbine engine oil, what would come from a modern aircraft, is clean, will spread very quickly and reflects a light sheen of different muted rainbow colors.
- Jet fuel is the toughest to spot from altitude once it has had time to spread. It is clear and light and very quick to disburse. It will produce a sheen that might reflect different colors depending on the light. Once it spreads the rainbow like sheen will fade. It evaporates slowly compared to gasoline, but much quicker than crude or refined oil.
Image of Reported Oil Slick This is an image of a crude oil spill. Someone should investigate how it got there but it has nothing to do with missing aircraft.
Many years ago a Boeing 727 went off the radar in Nigeria and disappeared over a lagoon surrounded by a low land forest. I wasn’t directly involved in the search but I followed it closely because I flew right past the most likely search area every day. I knew that, by the fact that the aircraft disappeared so quickly, if it hit dry land we would see rising smoke on the horizon and find it that way. If it hit water we would find an oil/fuel slick.
On the third day the search team had not found the aircraft. No smoke and no oil slick. Over 20 aircraft had been involved including 5 helicopters. While flying past the search area each day I had talked to the search pilots but no one found a clue that would identify or locate the crash site.
I convinced my Managing Director to let me have one hour. The client wouldn’t allow our Cessna Caravan Seaplane to be part of the search but unofficially we could use the aircraft on down time or weekends. I took the opportunity to fly out to the search area which I redefined based on the following criteria:
- Known route and direction
- Last known radio call
- Likely glide or rapid descent cone. Lack of a proper emergency radio transmission meant that they went down quickly.
- Searching only waterways (no fire meant they hit the water or swamp)
It only took me 20 minutes to find the crash site in the middle of the search zone that had been crisscrossed by many aircraft multiple times over the previous 2 days. The difference was that I knew what to look for and how to identify the evidence. Even after two full days the jet fuel, although very light and faint, was still evident in the lagoon waters. As the first responder for oil leaks, carrying out low level pipeline patrols, I had taught myself to see the signs.
Helicopter pilots doing pipeline patrols had a very small success rate for finding an oil spill within the first day of the reported pressure drop. Anyone could find a large leak after a few days but I figured out how to spot a leak immediately by recognizing the signs. Our “leak repair” company was paid more the quicker we were on site and the quicker we patched the leak. Learning to find pipeline leaks before anyone else helped me when searching for downed aircraft in the water.
After circling at about 500 feet I then needed to verify the crash site by finding debris. I went down to 25 feet above the water and could immediately see what I could not see from 500 feet: seat cushions and bits of paper and plastic. Another environmental clue, however, was the abnormal number of villagers in their tree trunk canoes just paddling in circles? That was the same for finding a pipeline leak. The villagers often found the leak first and would circle the site to scoop up the free fuel. (Yes crude burns.)
I found out later that the local villagers were looking for suitcases and other personal items as they came to the surface from the submerged aircraft debris. I flew back to base and phoned in my findings. Bristow Helicopters dispatched a helicopter and the pilot confirmed finding entire seats and aircraft parts embedded in the shallow mud bottom lagoon.
The Vietnamese air force pilots searching for the downed Malaysian Airlines B777 were reportedly looking down from 20,000 or at best 10,000 feet. There is no way to positively identify an open ocean crash site from that altitude. Next time you are in the city look down a long street. An average block is 600-900 ft long. Try to identify a person at the end of the block. Now try identifying anyone from 10 blocks or 20 blocks away. It’s just not possible.
The Reuters report also said many search vessels were being dispatched to join the search. Searching from a boat, however, is equally difficult for the opposite reason. The observation decks are too low to the water. If the seas are rough often the spotters will not be able to see down in the troughs thus effectively cutting their spotting time down to half.
After a helicopter disappear on the night flight from a helideck 85 miles offshore the Chevron called out all the contracted supply vessels to join the search. Of the 20 plus boats involved in the search most found nothing. One, and I attribute this to the diligence of the crew, found about 20% of the debris. During aerial searches between 1000 and 200 feet above sea level I found the rest of the significant debris including the key components that enabled the NTSB to determine the cause of the crash.
After the helicopter was reported missing the Search and Rescue (SAR) coordinators, who had no ocean SAR experience, dispatched several twin turbine long range aircraft at first light. Air traffic control only allowed them to descend to 6000 ft. At that altitude they found nothing. Because one of the suspected reasons a helicopter goes down might be “fuel contamination” the drill rig had shut down their on-board jet fuel supply. Thus we could not use the helicopters for any meaningful SAR as their range was limited and their loiter time on site was only 20 minutes.
This time I convinced my Operations Manager to let me have a go with or without approval of the client using our Cessna Caravan amphib. After all it was our pilots who might still be out there floating around. I fueled the aircraft and set out using the endurance power setting to get the most range.
Once on site I radioed the helicopter pilot who had been onsite for 20 minutes and was now heading back to base. He had followed the known departure route and at the most likely location of where the pilot had made their last garbled transmission he found a small but steady oil leak coming from deep under the surface and bubbling up a few drops at a time. The pilot was convinced that was the crash site.
Once overhead and when the helicopter headed back to base for fuel I descended to 1100 feet AMSL (above mean sea level) to have a good look at the oil slick created by the surfacing oil. I was not convinced it was our downed helicopter. Although it had the consistency of turbine oil, light and quickly disbursed, it was ascending too perfectly steady, several drops at time.
I believed that if the helicopter had sunk in this spot the oil evidence would not be so perfectly regulated. Leaking engine or transmission oil would most likely create a mess that would have dispersed quickly over night leaving little for us to find 12 hours later. Because it was located perfectly on the departure route and because I could not imagine what else could create such a neat oil leak I did not rule it out. I called in the location and asked for a search boat to scoop up the water to determine, in the oil company’s laboratory, what kind of oil it was. If it was refined turbine oil then we would know for sure. In the end the boat could never get a significant sample so we never found out.
The helicopter pilot that had already been on site found nothing before running low on fuel and headed back to base along the route the missing pilot would have taken. It was a bright clear day with a light but brisk breeze streaking the water. I then decided to start searching downstream instead of downwind, determined by watching a supply ship drift against the wind while being pushed by an east bound ocean current. I then went into classic search mode:
- Using the expanding downwind search boxes (grids) to save time and fuel
- Low speeds – to let the spotters (or pilot) have a chance to process information – when you see something you need time to realize what you are looking at.
- Low altitudes – to have a good vista while being close enough to identify debris with the naked eye. Binoculars are often useless in the turbulent low level air. I learned, from searching for missing barges and while whale spotting that 1100 feet AMSL works best for seeing objects along the horizon. 500 to 25 feet AMSL, however, works best for locating and identifying crash debris. You have to be able to identify the debris because you don’t want to be dispatching search boats to pick up coconuts which are about the size of a human head or Styrofoam which can be mistaken for anything. There is a lot of garbage drifting around the ocean.
With the helicopters having cleared the area I descended to 500 ft following the current. I immediately discovered, on the first downstream search box, helicopter crash debris. On each discovery I called in the GPS coordinates and the search vessels steamed to the location. Even with the coordinates to guide them the crew, from such a low deck level, had a difficult time spotting the debris I could see so easily from 500 ft. I had to circle and circle while giving detailed descriptions of where the debris was in relation to where they were looking. They could be right over the debris and still not see it.
With perseverance we finally managed to retrieve almost everything I spotted. In three days of searching I was the only person to spot any of the helicopter wreckage from above. The inexperienced spotters tired quickly and found nothing of significance. I even had to change out spotters everyday because the work was so exhausting. I even spotted a floating clip board with a piece of paper still attached and flowing in the current. Altogether we found 2 doors, a piece of the tail rotor, un-deployed life vests, one un-deployed life raft and one passenger floating in a deployed life vest with a broken neck. It wasn’t until the forth night a surface vessel found one human body and a second door while searching with a night light. We never found the fuselage, the crew or the second passenger.
I did, however, find the crash site and enough wreckage for the NTSB to determine the cause of the accident. I am not a professional SAR coordinator but I attributed that particular accomplishment to the specific skills learned from carrying out numerous aerial searches over my years of flying.
My personal and professional experience tells me that finding the missing Malaysian Airlines B777 will be nearly impossible. I am not saying impossible because if the aircraft had any one of the satellite (GPS) reporting systems working then they will get to within a reasonable vicinity of the crash site. Once in the vicinity the best bet would be to use boat launched helicopters (shore launched helicopters would not have the range to reach the crash site) to cover the largest area in the shortest time. With experienced search coordinators making the best use of the resources, and lots of luck, they just might be able to find something. Pieces of an airplane can tell a story.
The irony is, however, that someone somewhere will eventually find a piece of this airplane. Eight months or eight years or eighty later a wing tip or aileron or part of the composite (float-able) fuselage will float to shore where someone will find it. Mark my words. Then the conspiricy theorists will come online again and decide that the airliner must have flown on and on mysteriously until it crashed in some remote islands or open seas. In truth the ocean is full of floating debris from lost airliners or ships and where the winds and currents will take them no one will be able to determine. I am sure there is a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft still circling the ocean somewhere.
A small group of wreckage hunters purports to have found a bit of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft. It’s a good story, but critics of the find are more vocal than ever
Has Amelia Earhart’s plane finally been found? Not so fast | US news | The Guardian
Editor’s Note: It is now early in the morning in Asia. I originally wrote that the airliner disappeared over the Gulf of Thailand according to the aircraft’s route shown on FlightRadar24. The screenshot shows that the route skirts the inside edge between the two bodies of water. Apparently, however, the authorities decided the aircraft is in the South China Seas. Either way it is still missing.
Related Pilot Blog Post
117 Killed in Nigerian Plane Crash Oct 22nd, 2005
Storyline- Oct 23rd, 2005
Bellview Airlines Crash: I was awoken at 7:00 on Sunday morning by the Nigerian Chairman of Pan African Airlines asking me to help look for his missing niece. I had no idea of what he was asking, but soon found out that a Bellview Airlines Boeing 737-200, ironically named “HOPE”, had gone missing after the pilot broadcast a distress call at 20:45 Saturday night.