Air France wreckage recovery

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. The recovery phase of the wreckage of Air France flight 447 is now getting underway. The commercial flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean in June, 2009. All 228 people on board were killed. The area where most of the debris collected from the crash has just been discovered. It was found by a search team, led by David Gallo of the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

David Gallo: It's exactly in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, between the point that sticks out on South America, that's Recife, and the mainland of Africa, so it's smack-dab in the middle, on top of an underwater mountain range that's on the eastern flank of some of the most rugged mountains on the planet, about two miles beneath the sea.

Werman: Right. The team actually searched an area that had not been searched before, and this is a pretty extensive investigation. What led you there?

Gallo: Well, a lot of groundwork by the French agencies involved, the BEA, which is the French version of NTSB, and they were able to point us to the direction of a much smaller haystack than we've been looking in, and we'd always said that if you get us to the right haystack, we'll find that needle.

Werman: Tell us about the submersible vehicles you used to explore this area.

Gallo: They're pretty remarkable. They're called REMUS 6000, 6000 means they'll go to 6000 meters depth. They're autonomous, so we launch these vehicles from the fantail of the research vessel. Each have a mission and spend about one day on the bottom, come back up to the surface and then we offload data, recharge the vehicles, send them down again. What's amazing is we're using three of those from the same platform, which is very, very rarely done, in fact I don't know of any other expedition that's done that, but they're able to map, survey the bottom with incredible precision and accuracy using both sound and cameras.

Werman: How many people can get in one of these submersibles?

Gallo: None. No, they're totally robotic.

Werman: No? Wow.

Gallo: Totally autonomous, so it's all being done right now with robots from the surface ship.

Werman: Tell us what you're seeing down there right now.

Gallo: The... I know they found some big pieces of the aircraft, they found engines, engine parts, landing gear, looks like pieces of wing. But it's all in one small, fairly tight area. Seems to be on a very flat, sedimented area.

Werman: What is the biggest technical challenge facing you?

Gallo: Well, it's tough. You know, every time you go to the sea, especially if you go below scuba depth, you're talking about fairly sophisticated technology, especially if you have a mission in mind. So it's not just tourism, where it's let's go look-see. The big things are things like navigation, we can't use GPS, communications, we can't use radio waves. We have to use sound. There's no light. The pressure is 6000 PSI or more, so it's incredible, bone-crushing pressure. It's all these things that people take for granted up here on land, but all things that we have to deal with at the bottom of the ocean.

Werman: Now, you and Withall do mostly archaeology and scientific missions. This seems like somewhat of an unusual assignment for you. How did you get involved in it?

Gallo: Sure, it's a very unusual assignment. You know, our mission is to explore the ocean in all of its disciplines, from animals to mapping the sea floor. In doing that, we have to develop these technologies, so the club of people that can work in that mountain range at those depths is very small, and we're one of the members of that club, so when this happened we offered our assistance immediately because we were confident that there was no better vehicles and the team was very experienced so we thought we could really make a difference.

Werman: And, David Gallo, we must remember that Air France flight 447 was a tragedy that killed all 228 people on the plane. Will you also be involved in recovering bodies, is that something you've ever had to do?

Gallo: No, Marco, we're not, that's the phase five, and they're mobilizing for that as we speak. Our job was simply to find the aircraft and then to make a very detailed map of the site, so that that phase, the recovery phase, will have that map to go by, because there are no maps of the deep sea. So we'll provide them with a map of all the large pieces and in so doing will help locate where those very important flight recorders are.

Werman: David Gallo, Direct Special Projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, thank you very much.

Gallo: Thanks, Marco.