Malaysian Plane Debris? Why It's a Race to Find Out

Currents and winds can rapidly spread debris, making finding the impact location (and black box) nearly impossible.

Australian aircraft have been scouring a remote corner of the southern Indian Ocean to confirm what could be large pieces of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. However, marine scientists say the nearly two weeks that has elapsed already will make it difficult to calculate the point of impact -- and the black box that could tell the world what happened.

"Time is everything here," said Luca Centurioni, a researcher in physical oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and director of the Global Drifter Program there. "The sooner they find something and confirm it the better."

Australian military officials released satellite images of what they believe to be two objects, one about 80 feet in length and the other about 15 feet. The objects were floating in an area about four hours flight -- or 1,550 miles, southwest of Perth, Australia.

Clouds and rain on Thursday made it difficult for the search aircraft to get a better look at the objects, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. But weather around the site is expected to improve over the weekend.

The aircraft and its 239 passengers and crew disappeared March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing. The search has been plagued by often contradictory information from Malaysian authorities, and confusion about the plane's flight path.

Investigators are also studying data from a flight simulator in the pilot's home for clues as to whether he played a role in the disappearance.

Aviation experts say the final answers could lie within the flight recorder, or so-called "black box" that is not designed to float. The recorder does have an electronic signal that will ping for several weeks and can withstand the pressure several thousand feet underwater.

It took two years to locate the flight recorder for Air France Flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean from Brazil to Paris in June 2009. However rescuers found debris from the plane after only five days, and were able to narrow the search area quickly.

Centurioni studies the surface currents that make up the world's oceans and has a number of ocean-going drifting instruments in the southern Indian Ocean near where Australian Air Force personnel are flying. He said wind, waves and surface currents could quickly disperse pieces of debris.

Larger objects that stick out of the water will be pushed more rapidly like a sail in the wind, while objects just at or below the surface will be at the mercy of currents.

"What you can be sure is the longer you wait, the more dispersion there will be and the harder it will be to find the impact site," Centurioni said.

In the past few years, scientists have improved their understanding of how the world's oceans circulate like giant conveyor belts. But even with drifting instruments, satellite measurements and shipboard cruises, there are still some places where data remains scanty.

Jose Borrero, a New Zealand-based marine consultant, helped develop one model for the spread of debris across the Pacific Ocean from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.

"From where they find the (airplane) debris now, you can run the model backwards but there is uncertainty in that," he said. "There's a bit of randomness that you put into the drifter models. That would give a zone and use other information to narrow it down. But as time goes by the inaccuracy of that zone is going to get worse and worse."

If the Australian crews confirm the debris is from the missing craft, Centurioni and other ocean scientists will likely be enlisted in the search for the black box. Some U.S. oceanographers have already agreed to help with an underwater search using remotely-operated submersibles, but Malaysian officials haven't taken their offer.

One of the Australian aircraft, a C-130 Hercules, will drop marker buoys in the area to give scientists information about water movement for drift modeling.

"They will provide an ongoing reference point if the task of relocating the objects becomes protracted," said John Young, a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Administration.

"The objects are relatively indistinct on the imagery. I don't profess to be an expert in assessing the imagery, but those who are expert indicate they are credible sightings. The indication to me is of objects that are a reasonable size and probably awash with water bobbing up and down under the surface."

This handout from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority shows the satellite images of the two objects that officials say could possibly be related to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

A World War II wreck, which has been laying on the bottom of an Italian lake for 70 years, has revealed a forgotten story of love during wartime. The wreck, a B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber, crashed in Lake Bolsena on Jan. 15, 1944.

Divers from the Research Center of the Scuba School of Lake Bolsena and the Fire Department of Viterbo identified several pieces of the plane scattered on the bottom of the lake. From a depth of 300 feet, they recovered the largest piece, the Sperry ball turret -- an enclosed capsule that protected the bomber at the belly of the craft.

The recovered turret featured the intriguing hand-painted words: "Ileen Lois." "The words were still visible after 70 years underwater on the right and left side of the turret," said Mario Di Sorte, a historian who pieced together the plane's history.

It turned out the words referred to Lois Eileen, the young wife of gunner Sgt. Ralph Truesdale. He was one of the 10-man crew aboard the four-engine aircraft B-17 USAF serial no. 4124364. Ralph Truesdale (R) and his wife, Lois Eileen, are shown here. Lois is holding their five-month-old child.

Writing a lover's name on the plane wasn't just Truesdale's idea. When it came to name their plane, the entire crew agreed to call it "Ethel," after the girlfriend of right waist gunner, Anthony Brodniak. The B-17 plane is shown at left. At right Antony Brodniak poses with his girlfriend, Ethel.

"Ethel" flew for the last time on Jan. 15, 1944. The final flight was part of a mission which involved the use of 38 B-17 Flying Fortresses divided into two waves. The primary target was the railroad bridge in the town of Certaldo, south of Florence. The alternate target was a marshalling yards at Poggibonsi, near Siena.

Once near Perugia, the group encountered heavy fire from German anti-aircraft. Seven B-17s in the first wave and 18 in the second suffered serious damage. "Ethel's" two engines were struck and damaged and the bomber spun out of control.

The plane crashed into Lake Bolsena, the largest volcanic lake in Europe. All 10 men parachuted to the ground.

Of the wrecked bomber's 10 men, three were captured by the Germans and finished out the war in a POW Camp. The remaining seven were saved and hidden from the Germans by Italian families. Truesdale also left his turret and let the name of his wife plunge in the water with the plane. Truesdale was among the crewmen captured by the Germans and taken in a POW camp. He managed to escape and remained hidden for three months until the arrival of the Allies.

Despite the romantic wartime tale, love did not last for Ralph and Lois. The couple divorced in 1947. All that remains is the wreck of the turret, now on display at a local museum in Bolsena, Italy.