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The Challenges Of Recovering An Airliner Out Of Thin Air


The disappearance of the Malaysian plane has been compared to the crash of an Air France jetliner flying from Rio to Paris in June of 2009. While some debris from that flight was found days later, it took investigators two years to locate the main wreckage and the plane's black box data recorders. They were recovered some 13,000 feet down in the Atlantic. Mark Rosenker was involved in that investigation as the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He's now a consultant with CBS News. And he says one big question for the Malaysia flight is whether investigators are even looking in the right place.

MARK ROSENKER: They've taken the last checkpoint, which was over Vietnamese airspace, they then took a look at where they stopped looking at the radar and they tried to make, then, the calculations of where they could do the search. That's why when they began to see the oil slick, they really thought they had come upon something.

BLOCK: Assuming they do find some wreckage floating on the water and can narrow their search down, how will they go about searching for the plane wreckage that's underwater and, in particular, for the black boxes?

ROSENKER: Well, once they find anything that has to do with the aircraft itself, any type of debris, they can begin to do other calculations of where the debris field may be and then hopefully be able to find where the black boxes are located. They have the ability to be powered for about 30 days with a device that actually pings. And at that point, they'll be able to do the recovery because we are in relatively shallow waters compared to what we had to do when we were looking at Air France 447 where it crashed into the South Atlantic.

BLOCK: You know, there's so many parallels or comparisons being made with that Air France crash in 2009, but back then, you had, I think, four minutes of data that had been coming in from the plane showing that it was in trouble, there were problems in that flight. Apparently, there's none of that with this flight. Am I right?

ROSENKER: That's what's so extraordinary about this. The ACARS and all of the systems which, in fact, are monitoring the airplane and sending signals back to the ground were running well. There was no indication of any type of extemis(ph) within the aircraft, where what we saw in Air France 447 was the beginnings of problems with the aircraft that lasted for some -- close to four minutes before it struck the water.

BLOCK: So what does that tell you about possible scenarios for the Malaysian flight?

ROSENKER: It really begins to say whatever happened, happened quickly and resulted in a catastrophic departure from the air. What created that could be mechanical failure, could be pilot error. And the last thing, of course, is criminal activity.

BLOCK: Talk about the emphasis on black boxes with these aircraft investigations and whether the technology is what it should be to help in an investigation like this.

ROSENKER: Well, I'm glad you brought this point up because we need to get into the 21st century. We've got digital boxes. We've got the capability of listening for two to four hours. But our problem is when, in fact, an aircraft has an accident, those boxes go down with the airplane. We ought to be able to have those same basic parameters transmitted to us in real time continuously for these aircraft.

We would probably - if we could get some 20 to 40 parameters from the performance of this last flight, this triple 7, we would have a great beginning to understand what happened here.

BLOCK: And what's the holdup there? What's keeping that from happening?

ROSENKER: Well, what's keeping it from happening is the costs. We do have the capability of sending this material back and storing it. We're doing it now with ACAR systems and systems performance parameters that are going back for maintenance purposes.

BLOCK: Mark Rosenker is a former chairman with the National Transportation Safety Board. He's now a consultant with CBS News. Thanks very much.

ROSENKER: Delighted to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.