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Airline black boxes: Quaint devices in wired world of cloud data

Washington

ONCE again, the world is transfixed by an undersea search for an airliner that plunged into the ocean.

With images of the years-long unsuccessful search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 still fresh, the Indonesian government has dispatched 34 boats and more than 800 military and civilian personnel in search of a Lion Air plane that went down violently on Monday with 189 people on board, all of whom are feared dead. Divers hadn't located the aircraft's underwater resting place as of Tuesday night.

The search is in relatively shallow water near shore, so data showing the precise location of the crash shouldn't present the difficulties faced by some previous hunts, but veterans of these efforts cautioned that it could be complicated by baulky locater beacons and the sometimes tricky politics of who has to pay the considerable sums required to locate and retrieve the wreckage.

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Based on what appears to be a high-speed dive into the water, which can violently tear an aircraft apart, it's possible the so-called pinger locater beacons attached to a plane's crash-proof recorders were damaged, said Steven Saint Amour, the founder of Eclipse Group Inc who has taken part in dozens of similar searches.

"It looks like it was a pretty high-energy impact, like nose in," he said. "They may very well find the beacons, but there might not be anything attached to them. So they might have to visually search for the boxes."

The pingers send a sound beam once they come in contact with water and are designed to make them easier to locate. If the pingers broke loose on the Lion Air plane, then a lengthier manual search would be required to find the black box recorders, he said.

The almost new Boeing Co 737 Max crashed a few minutes after takeoff from Jakarta early Monday, slamming into the water at high speed, according to preliminary data transmitted from the aircraft to the ground and reported by FlightRadar24. A pilot had asked to return to land and the flight track showed variations of speed and altitude, suggesting they were dealing with some kind of problem.

But the plane's black boxes - which monitor its electronics and mechanical systems as well as record the words of the pilots - are needed to unravel what led to the dive into the water from about 4,850 feet in about 20 seconds.

Even in an era when smartphones automatically back up to the cloud, flight recorders don't transmit their data and need to be physically hauled from the deep. While it may be possible someday to stream flight data via satellite networks in real time, such networks don't currently exist to accommodate the thousands of aircraft aloft at the same time.

After the Malaysian jet disappeared in 2014 and following the almost two years it took to locate Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean after its 2009 crash, aviation regulators around the world have since mandated that, from 2020, pingers will have to last for 90 days, up from the current 30.

But there still isn't an easy way to access the Lion Air jet's data without getting the actual black boxes.

John Purvis, a retired accident investigator with Boeing, said: "The good news is it's in relatively shallow water. The minute it hits the water, within the first few feet, a lot of the energy is absorbed and that causes the breakup. The pieces sink to the bottom, so they're sitting there."

The seabed in that part of the Java Sea is thought to be relatively flat, though mired in layers of sediment.

Even in cases where the wreckage is easily located, it can take days or longer to locate the black boxes. Specialised underwater microphones are required to hear the pingers, which transmit on a frequency outside the range of human hearing. BLOOMBERG