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Navy 'black box locator' to aid in search for missing jetliner

The Towed Pinger Locator (TPL) 25 System used for locating emergency relocation pingers on downed Navy and commercial aircraft at a maximum depth of 20,000 feet anywhere in the world.

Navy officials are sending a black box locator to the search area near Australia in support of the efforts to find the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that went missing more than two weeks ago.

So far, the multinational effort to find the plane — along with its more than 200 passengers — has been unsuccessful.

The search shifted to waters off Australia’s southwestern coast last week.

However, the addition of the black box locator does not indicate that any debris of the Malaysia Air MH370 has been found, according to Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet.

“If a debris field is confirmed, the Navy’s Towed Pinger Locator 25 will add a significant advantage in locating the missing Malaysian aircraft’s black box,” Marks said in a Navy release sent Sunday.

The TPL-25 Towed Pinger Locator System is able to locate black boxes by detecting the acoustic pulse sent out by the commercial aircraft’s pingers, which is mounted directly on the flight recorder.

“We can hear the black box pinger down to a depth of about 20,000 feet,” said Cmdr. Chris Budde, U.S. 7th Fleet operations officer, in the release. “Basically this super-sensitive hydrophone gets towed behind a commercial vessel very slowly and listens for black box pings.”

The locator system —which weighs 70 pounds and is 30 inches long — will transmit an acoustic signal up its attached cable where a computer records its audible broadcast. There an operator will record navigation coordinates of each transmission. This will be repeated multiple times until a position is finally triangulated.

The Navy’s pinger location systems have been used many times in the past, including the 2009 search for an Air France passenger aircraft that went down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil.

As of Monday, the Navy has flown 15 missions in support of the search effort that began almost two weeks ago in the South China Sea.

A P-8 Poseidon, which arrived in Perth, Australia early last week, continues to search the southern search area off the coast of western Australia. And an Okinawa-based P-3 Orion, which has been a part of the search efforts almost since the beginning, continues to fly its missions from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

More than 122 hours of flight time and 160,000 square nautical miles have been covered by the two planes, which are typically used to hunt submarines.

In that time, the search area expanded to a broad swath covering 2.24 million square nautical miles from the southern Indian Ocean north to Kazakhstan including one of the remotest parts of the world; a patch of ocean more than 14,000 nautical miles from Perth. The area is so remote, even the long-distance Poseidon could only search the area for three hours before needing to return to base for fuel.

Last week, Navy officials downplayed reports of significant radar hits on board the P-8A Poseidon searching for the missing airliner. Marks said the Poseidon has not had “any indication of debris from the MH370 wreckage.”

The Malaysian jet disappeared early March 8 with 239 people aboard en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The United States is among 26 countries aiding in the search.

The destroyer USS Kidd was pulled from the search effort Monday “for follow-on operational tasking as they were when the search operation started,” Navy officials announced, bringing with it two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. Late last week, the Navy redirected its first ship on scene, USS Pinckney, to sail to Singapore for pre-scheduled maintenance but hasn’t ruled out its return to the search area.

kimber.james@stripes.com

Twitter: @james_kimber

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