By Gregory Viscusi
The mini-submarine France is sending to search for the black boxes of the Air France Airbus plane that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean has scooped up silverware from the Titanic and plugged holes in a sunken oil tanker.
The eight-meter long Nautile and its sister submarine, the Victor 6000, are on their way to the crash zone aboard the oceanographic research ship Pourquoi Pas?, or “Why Not?” They are due to arrive in the search area around June 12.
Pourquoi Pas? will join as many as seven other ships and 11 airplanes looking for debris of the Airbus SAS A330-200 that broke up June 1 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris with 228 people on board. AF447 hit turbulent weather over international waters between Brazil and Senegal. Brazilian planes have spotted debris about 650 kilometers (405 miles) northeast of Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha island, off the northeastern coast.“The current operations are intended to collect as much debris as possible before they are dispersed by winds and currents,” Christophe Prazuck, a spokesman for the French military, said at a briefing June 4. “It’s a mission that’s counted in hours or days. The Pourquoi Pas? will look for the black boxes, which can take weeks.”
Black boxes contain data from the flight, such as its speed and altitude, and any communication from the pilots. They emit signals for 30 days after an accident, according to French officials. The recorders are actually bright orange, to distinguish them from other equipment in black or gray casings.
The water’s depth in the area ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 meters, with the sea floor resembling a mountain range, said Paul-Louis Arslanian, director of the French Aviation Accidents Investigation Bureau at a press conference this week.
It’s the sort of mission the Nautile was designed for. The sub has carried out 1,500 dives since 1984 and is capable of reaching 97 percent of ocean floors, according to Ifremer, the French oceanography research institute that owns it.
In January 2003, it plugged eight holes on the hull of the Prestige, a tanker that was leaking oil from 3,500 meters deep off the French and Spanish Atlantic coasts.
Between 1994 and 1996 it dove 96 times to the Titanic, helping to recover 5,000 artefacts from the passenger ship that sank in 1912 and now sits under 3,800 meters of water 600 kilometers south-west of Newfoundland.
“The Nautile is one of only a few manned submarines that can withstand the 6,000 pounds per square inch pressure at the Titanic wreck site,” Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry said in an online brochure for a 2003 exhibition about the Titanic recovery.
The sub can carry a crew of three, dive to 6,000 meters and stay there for five hours, according to Ifremer. It is equipped with two arms, light projectors, sonar equipment, and video cameras. It was built by DCN, the former French state-run naval shipyard, in Toulon.
The Victor 6000 can also dive to 6000 meters. It isn’t manned, with its eight cameras and two arms controlled from the mother ship.
Pourquoi Pas? and its submarines were in the Azores as part of a project to help map the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where three tectonic plates confront each other at depths of up to 7,800 meters. They are now being diverted to the crash site.
Arslanian, the head of the French enquiry, said the black boxes may never be found. He also said that may not matter.
“We’ve had cases where we never found the black boxes and we were able to reconstruct what happened, and there have been cases where we found them and they didn’t tell us anything useful,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at [email protected]