NMC’s Connection to the Malaysia Airlines Recovery Effort

For the first time since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, searchers have used the word “optimistic” to describe their hopes of finding the black boxes, thanks to the detection of a second set of pings from the plane’s homing device on April 8. When the team locates the boxes, they will deploy remotely operated underwater vehicles to retrieve them, and when they do, it’s possible that a graduate from Northwestern Michigan College’s maritime program in Traverse City, Tucker Bailey, will be on ship helping operate the robot. He’s currently on official standby, bag packed, awaiting final word of deployment.

Whether Bailey ends up deployed or not, it’s gratifying news for Hans VanSumeren, who helped design and launch a program at Traverse City’s Northwestern Michigan College—the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute—that trains students on the equipment being used in the black box recovery. We spoke to Van Sumeren to get more understanding of this complex recovery effort.

So, what organization will actually be doing the recovery?

It’s a company called Phoenix International Holdings, and they are essentially a civilian arm of the Navy’s deep submergence salvage operations. They are the people who recovered the black boxes from the Air France crash in 20,000 feet of water back in 2011.

Walk us through the process, starting with the pinger.

The way the pinger works is it emits an acoustic signal once the box gets wet. The sound is traceable for miles. One thing, the media is reporting that the battery is weakening, implying that the sound is becoming fainter, but that’s not the case. The sound goes at full strength or it doesn’t go at all. It’s either on or off.

Assuming they will pinpoint the location of the black boxes, what will be used to survey the wreckage site?

That’s called a Bluefin Autonomous Underwater Vehicle. It looks like a torpedo, is about 18 feet long and weighs a few thousand pounds. You can pre-program the Blue Fin to go under water, either near the bottom or near the surface, wherever you want it, and it goes under and basically does what we call mowing the lawn: it just goes back and forth over a section of the bottom and records everything with high quality video and acoustic sonar. When it returns to the ship you download the information and you can quickly see if it’s found anything.

So autonomous means nobody is controlling the Blue Fin from the ship, it’s all on its own?

Correct. The first time you use one, it feels like some moments with your first born child— you release it to the world and you have no ability to control it and you hope it comes back. They are actually very safe and very rugged and very reliable, but yes, there is no driver.

So assuming they spot the wreckage, what then.

They will send down a remotely operated vehicle on a tether, and the tether allows the operator to guide the vehicle and also provides power. These types of vehicles can be very large, like 10 feet long and 6 feet wide and 8 feet high, and they might weigh 10,000 pounds. The engine might generate 200 horsepower, so the tether has to provide a lot of power. These are heavy-duty, hydraulically operated work vehicles.

The one that Phoenix expects to use on this mission is slightly smaller than that, about 5 feet long, 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall and generates about 25 horsepower.

All of this technology has evolved from the Gulf of Mexico and the oil fields there. They are doing all of the construction on the oil platforms in 12,000, 14,000 feet of water, hundreds of them at a time. They have a few arms—they look like arms from the Terminator movie—and each arm weighs 300 or 400 pounds. They can exchange tools, insert cable connections, everything.

Let’s end with an update on your underwater program. How is it going?

We’ve been really networking with the industry—including Phoenix International—talking to them, developing connections to give them the kind of people who have the training they need. We are seeing our graduates with two-year degrees starting out at $50,000 a year and moving up to six figures within three to five years. There’s huge job demand in the oil industry. The one thing we can’t train for is on-ship life. Thirty days on, thirty days off. Some people are fine with it, others aren’t. We have 100 students signed up to begin fall semester.

For information about Great Lakes Water Studies Institute programs: nmc.edu/resources/water-studies/index.html

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