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Navy’s black box locator, AUV arriving in Australia Wednesday

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.

When the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet in the South Indian Ocean resumes Wednesday, a few additional tools may be available to assist in the effort.

The multinational effort for MH370 and its 239 passengers and crewmembers that began more than two weeks ago has so far been unsuccessful.

On Wednesday, one of the Navy’s black box locators, the Towed Pinger Locator 25, and a side-scanning sonar, the Bluefin-21 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), are scheduled to arrive in Australia, said Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet.

The Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle is an unmanned submarine with side-scanning sonar that can map out the ocean floor with a multibeam echosounder. It can travel at a maximum speed of 4.5 knots and reach depths of as much as 14,700 feet for as long as 25 hours. If a debris field is found, the AUV can use sonar to create a topographic map of the area that may show where the wreckage is resting.

The black box locator listens for the pings coming from a plane’s black box. After several passes, the operator can triangulate the coordinates of the pings’ origination. It proved successful in the 2009 search of an Air France jet that crashed in the south Atlantic Ocean.

Rear Adm. John Kirby said an Australian multipurpose commercial ship is scheduled to tow the black box locator and deploy the AUV.

The arrival of this new equipment does not mean there is any indication that debris or wreckage have been located, officials stressed.

“We don’t have a debris field that we can go look for specifically,” Kirby told journalists at the Pentagon. “We don’t have anything to indicate where the aircraft is or even that it is down at the bottom of the ocean.”

In recent days, poor weather has hampered the search efforts. Two Navy maritime surveillance aircraft taking part in the search, a P-8 Poseidon and a P-3 Orion, have been forced to take time off for maintenance. As of Monday, the Navy had flown 15 missions in support of the search effort, which began almost two weeks ago in the South China Sea.

“Seventh Fleet is in a supporting role to both the Australian-led effort in the Southern sector and the overall Malaysian-led coordination efforts,” said Marks. “As new information becomes available, our search areas are adjusted accordingly.”

The Poseidon, which arrived in Perth early last week, continues to search off the coast of western Australia. The Okinawa-based Orion, which has been a part of the search efforts almost since the beginning, continues to fly its missions from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The two aircraft have so far covered more than 160,000 square nautical miles of ocean.

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 the Indian Ocean located southwest of Perth. The area is so remote, even the long-distance Poseidon could search the zone for only three hours before having to return to base for refueling.

The destroyer USS Kidd was pulled from the search effort Monday, 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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