Lessons From Another Missing Plane: Air France Flight 44705:54

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The search continues for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 239 people that disappeared in route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing more than three days ago.

This isn’t the first time a large commercial flight has mysteriously disappeared. The 2009 vanishing of Air France flight 447 over the Atlantic from Rio de Janeiro to Paris was shrouded in mystery for years. That crash killed 216 passengers and 12 aircrew.

Engineer Mike Purcell of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution headed one of the underwater search missions for the plane. He speaks with Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson about the Air France recovery and his thoughts on today’s search.

Interview Highlights: Mike Purcell

On how you know where to look, given the currents

"One of the roles that Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution could play in this instance is, if we now start to find debris, is to project a path of that debris over the last days. You know, the oceanographers can look at currents, look at winds, look at the waves and they can sort of project the path of an object as it's drifting on the surface. And that’s pretty customary to do this in man overboard events and that same technique would be used this time to sort of predict the point at which the debris started to float and disburse over the ocean."

On how tides and water depth could affect the search

"I think this event, which probably has happened in shallow water, will be easy to find once the searchers determine a starting point. It’s just there’s a lot more equipment available, the search can be done faster in the shallower water and so I think that will be a benefit in this instance. I think that the important thing is to find a good starting point."

On whether anything should have been done differently in the Air France search

"Well, it’s hard to project what happened, I think. And so lots of times with a search like this, it comes down to using the right equipment and persevering. It obviously took us a long time to find the Air France flight. You know, it’s sort of a remote location, 500 plus miles offshore, made it difficult to be out there. I mean typical ships could be out there for 30 days but then they had to come back in. But I think perseverance and using the right equipment will result in locating the remains of the airplane."


  • Mike Purcell, principal engineer in applied ocean physics and engineering at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

This segment aired on March 11, 2014.