The Sampson arrived on the scene Tuesday afternoon in the Java Sea and began assisting with the use MH-60R search-and-rescue helicopters, said Lt. Lauren Cole, a Navy spokesperson. They began finding debris late in the evening. Another Navy ship, the USS Fort Worth, is in Singapore, and also prepared to help if requested.
A look at previous recovery efforts — including the still-stalled effort to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 after it disappeared March 8 over the South China Sea — suggests that other help may be requested, too.
In many previous cases, the service has sent surveillance planes, helicopters, robot submarines and other equipment to help as part of a broad international effort. Some of that technology is most quickly — and in some cases exclusively — available to the United States.
The AirAsia flight went missing Saturday while flying from Indonesia to Singapore with 162 people on board. Already, the recovery effort has gone much differently than MH370’s however.
While the missing Malaysian airliner is believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean west of Australia and sunk more than a mile deep after deviating from its flight path, Flight 8501 wreckage was found in less than 100 feet of water. That drastically expands the options to look for the fuselage and the “black box” flight data recorders that could offer clues to why it went down.
One of the items the Navy could use is the Towed Pinger Locator 25, which uses a high-powered underwater microphone known as a hydrophone to search for acoustic “pings” that come from beacons mounted to the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder in planes. The pinger locator, made by Phoenix International of Largo, Md., can detect pings up to 20,000 feet deep, but only if the beacons are functional and emitting pings. They could have been damaged in the destruction of the plane, and typically have a battery life of about 30 to 40 days, creating logistical challenges.
The shallow depths off Borneo where the wreckage of Flight 8501 has been found opens other options to find the data recorders, too. In one example, the recovery of TWA Flight 800 — after it exploded and crashed off the coast of Long Island in 1996 in waters about 120 feet deep — used a pinger locator, but also sonar systems, underwater drones and dive teams, according to an official Navy report. The dive teams filled an extensive and difficult role in recovering 125 bodies that didn’t initially surface.
Indonesia authorities said Tuesday that divers and sonar-equipped ships were already on the crash site. The top goals are to find the bodies of crash victims, followed by the flight data recorders, officials said.
There’s recent history of the Indonesian government working with the United States on airliner recoveries. In 2007, the Navy used a towed pinger locator to find Adam Air Flight 574, which crashed on Jan. 1, 2007, while flying between the Indonesian cities of Surabaya and Manado. The fuselage was found at a depth of between 4,900 and 6,200 feet with the help of the USNS Mary Sears, Navy officials said.
UPDATE, 5:53 p.m.: This post has been updated with additional information.