He’s now searching for a much smaller target. The F-4 probably shattered hitting the water, Royce said, breaking into “many, many, many pieces” that drifted to the bottom. “It can be very tedious,” he said. “You just go back and forth and make some guesses.”
If sonar picks up a trail of debris — and if it’s oriented in the direction the plane was headed on last radar contact — Ballard will splash an ROV to take a closer look, Royce said.
The two ROVs aboard Nautilus can send high-definition video of any wreckage back to the ship via a control cable.
Finding the remains of the two pilots would be much harder, Royce said.
The urgent mission is disrupting the plans of a rotating crew of 120 scientists, engineers and educators scheduled to work aboard the Nautilus this summer. Originally scheduled to begin July 1, the cruise was to search for ancient shipwrecks, explore an undersea volcano and gather samples of sea life.
The Turkish government has granted Ballard permits to conduct research in Turkish waters.
The search is being paid for by the Turkish government. A spokesman for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has provided funding to Ballard and his Institute for Exploration since 2005 said no NOAA funds were being used on the hunt for the jet.
With a full crew of 48, the Nautilus
is expensive to operate, likely costing $70,000 to $100,000 a day, Royce said.
After agreeing to the mission, Ballard contacted NOAA and said, “When we’re done, we’ll pick up and do the mission we’re scheduled to do,” a NOAA spokesman said.
If anyone can find the wreckage, it’s Ballard and his experienced team, Royce said. The veteran explorer has led some 125 expeditions, scouring the oceans for famous wrecks. He located the German battleship Bismarck; the lost fleet of Guadalcanal; the remains of John F. Kennedy’s World War II war boat, PT 109, in the Solomon Sea; and the oldest shipwrecks ever found in deep water, off the coast of Israel. He launched the Nautilus in 2009.
The urgency of the Turkish request reflects both international tensions and domestic politics in Turkey.
The reluctance of NATO, the United States and other Western powers to intervene in Syria’s internal upheaval have been challenged by rising tensions between Syria and NATO-member Turkey along its border. The shoot-down led to Turkey calling for a NATO meeting to discuss invoking the alliance’s mutual defense pact.
Long-standing civil-military tensions inside Turkey have been exacerbated by media reports challenging the military’s conclusion that the plane had exited Syrian airspace long before it was struck.