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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
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Tampa explorers hope to search for Malaysian plane

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In his career, Tom Dettweiler of Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. helped find the Titanic, scores of sunken military ships and the doomed TWA Flight 800.

His next challenge may be finding a much more elusive sunken wreck — Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Tampa-based Odyssey is one of several ocean exploration firms now bidding on an Australian government contract to search the ocean for the plane. The winner could be announced in the next few weeks.

“This is probably one of the most mysterious disappearances we’ve had in the last few decades for sure,” Dettweiler said. Still, this is what Odyssey does for a living, he said.

“We’ve got the ideal ship for it, and it’s available right now. So we threw our hat in the ring. We’d definitely like to do the job. It’s one you can feel good about doing. We have to find this airplane and understand what happened.”

The Boeing 777 went down on March 8, likely in an especially remote stretch of the Indian Ocean that’s one of the least-mapped and least-explored regions of the world’s oceans. With not a single bit of debris to point the way, explorers are left with little more than a few trace satellite pings from the craft before it disappeared.

The bidding request the Australians published is especially sparse as well, but it gives both a sense of scope and lists a few criteria.

“The Australian Transport Safety Bureau … is seeking to contract services to:

♦ search for and locate MH370 within a defined search area on the sea floor; and

♦ if located, map and obtain optical imaging of MH370.”

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Finding the plane ranks as one of the toughest challenges imaginable in ocean research.

Even if researchers have found the right search area, that area spans a space the size of West Virginia, Dettweiler said, if not larger. The ocean floor reaches 6,000 meters down, about 3.7 miles, nearly the height of the tallest mountain in the United States, Mount McKinley, and the ocean floor includes mountain ranges that — if above the surface — would rank as among the tallest peaks on Earth.

That means searching through canyons, not a flat, sandy ocean floor.

The best initial approach, Dettweiler said, is to use a submerged side-scanning sonar that’s towed from a ship above — back and forth in a grid pattern. However, sonar works like shining a light in the dark, and with the rocky terrain, Dettweiler said it’s like flying a helicopter in the canyons of the Rockies at night with a big flashlight.

They’ll be looking for large and especially dense pieces of wreckage, but if a piece of debris is sitting on the other side of a mountain, it would fall in the shadow cast by the sonar. So the search method very much involves sifting through hundreds of hours of overlapping sonar footage to look around the shadows cast by mountains.

The first clues — if they find any — would likely be a large tail section of the aircraft because those tend to stand upright and reflect sonar well. The plane’s engines are nearly indestructible so they could show up on sonar too, he said.

If they find the wreckage, the next step would be sending down high-resolution cameras and lights and piecing together a photo mosaic of the area.

Then they’d go looking for the aircraft’s “black boxes.” Investigators may want aircraft pieces brought up for examination. No decision has been made about recovering any bodies, if they are found.

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Though the site is deep, Odyssey routinely works at those depths with remote-controlled robots that can pick up debris, cut into ship’s hulls and recover heavy freight. Odyssey recently located the SS Gairsoppa in the Atlantic at a depth similar to the MH370 search area and recovered 61 tons of silver bars.

Before working for Odyssey, Dettweiler helped find TWA Flight 800, which went down just after taking off from New York in 1996, and helped find the wreck of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409, which plunged into the Mediterranean Sea in 2010.

Odyssey and other bidders may find out in two or three weeks who will have the contract.

The Australians will share the cost of the work with the Malaysian government.

There is no bounty for finding the site. Rather, the winner will work on a charter basis that reimburses them for daily costs.

Dettweiler said his bid includes partnering with another bidder, though he declined to say which, citing a confidentiality agreement.

Time is a pressing issue, he said, as the Australians want to start work around Sept. 1, and whichever company wins will have to get its boats to the site quickly.

Odyssey can soon deploy the 100-meter search vessel Dorado Discovery, now in the Pacific. If Odyssey wins, Dettweiler plans to spend the bulk of his time on the ship during the search. By some estimates, the first phase could take 12 months.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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