U of M Professor Describes Difficulty of Searching for Missing Plane

Posted at: 03/10/2014 7:43 PM
Updated at: 03/11/2014 7:23 AM
By: Stephen Tellier

In this day and age, you can find almost anything just by using your smartphone. So why is it so difficult to find a large passenger plane after it apparently crashes?

One expert told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that investigators have a very difficult search ahead of them.

Dozens of ships and aircraft are searching about 100 nautical miles in all directions from the spot where Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was last seen on radar. If and when they find it, they could find the key to a mystery that has perplexed the world since Friday.

"It's a shocking event," University of Minnesota aerospace engineering and mechanics professor Gary Balas said.

A shocking event with shockingly few clues.

"Things went wrong very rapidly," Balas said.

It could have been pilot error, mechanical error, or a deliberate act. To find out, investigators have to first find the plane. Balas said doing so -- in open waters -- is extremely difficult.

"When they fly over oceans, their ability to have radar contact and knowledge of where the aircraft are is reduced," Balas said.

All large passenger airplanes are equipped with transponders that send out a signal for about 30 days. But that signal is relatively weak, especially if it's coming from the ocean floor.

"It's challenging. Obviously, it's just a small, it's not a high-powered beacon," Balas said.

With no other ways to pinpoint the plane's location, Balas said the naked eye may be the best tool available.

The top priority is locating the all-important black box, which should remain intact indefinitely. Balas said it should have recorded data from the final 25 minutes of the flight.

"It can answer questions like, 'Were there problems with the engines? Were there problems with the surfaces? The electrical system?'" Balas said.

New systems are currently being developed that would feed back flight information in real time - like a black box hooked up to the internet.

"But that's the future, and not many planes have that on board to take advantage of," Balas said.

All American planes are supposed to have that technology by 2020.

Meanwhile, the word on everyone's minds is: terrorism.

Right now, no one can say definitively whether or not this was an intentional act. But Bill Michael, a former Terrorism Coordinator with the Department of Justice, said if it was an act of terror, someone likely would have claimed responsibility by now. He also discounted the theory that this may have been a "dry run" for a more spectacular attack.

"You can 'dry run' without actually causing a catastrophe like this, and thus, stay below the awareness of law enforcement," Michael said.

Still, he said many law enforcement agencies the world over are currently combing through their databases, checking with sources in terrorist networks, and analyzing the history of every person on that plane.