The U.S. Navy is relying on its new maritime patrol aircraft's radar and infrared sensors to help scour a swath of ocean for the missing Malaysian airliner, officials said.
The service's P-8 Poseidon, designed to hunt submarines, arrived in Perth, Australia, this week from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 widened to the southern Indian Ocean amid satellite imagery of possible debris.
The search for Flight 370, which went missing March 8 about an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on a flight to Beijing, is the naval plane's first high-profile international mission.
The twin-engine P-8A, a military version of the Boeing 737-800, is one of six such aircraft the Navy stationed in Okinawa, Japan, in recent months as part of the Pentagon's shift in strategic emphasis to the Asia-Pacific region.
The plane is outfitted with sensors well-suited to searching for personnel or debris on the surface of the sea, including an AN/APY-10 surveillance radar made by Raytheon Co. and MX-series electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) camera made by L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., officials said.
"The radar can alert a crew that something abnormal exists on the surface of the ocean, whether it be a ship, a life raft, or a small object," Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the Navy's Seventh Fleet, said in an e-mail. "Then the EO/IR camera can provide the visual picture, acting as the eyes of the crew, day or night."
He added, "The combination of radar and EO/IR is a significant enhancement over a visual search, as it increases the area of coverage and the probability that a feature on the ocean's surface will be detected," Marks said.
Also found on military drones and aerostats, L-3's MX-20 sensors are high-definition imaging systems, with 2 megapixel zoom, and other features.
"If suspect debris were spotted, the aircraft would more than likely use the EO/IR camera at close range to identify exactly what was detected and would provide the necessary information to lead salvage ships to the wreckage," Marks said.
In a recent report, the Pentagon's top weapons tester said the aircraft can't perform its primary missions such as hunting submarines or conducting broad-area surveillance due in part to "sensor shortfalls." A Boeing official said many of the issues identified were related to software that has since been fixed.
The nine-crew P-8, which has a range of about 1,200 nautical miles, last week joined the search for the airliner to assist its Cold War-era predecessor, a P-3C Orion made by Lockheed Martin Corp., which has a range of about 2,400 nautical miles and is still operating out of the Malaysian capital."
While the P-3 has a longer range, as well as radar, infrared and night-vision cameras, the P-8 is faster, with a top speed of 564 miles per hour, and can generally spend more time searching a site, Marks said.
"The missions are generally scheduled to be airborne for 9-10 hours total, including any time spent transiting to and from the search area," he said. "In order to reach an outer search areas, the P-8A can transit up to 900-1200NM, still leaving 3-4 hours to conduct the search prior to returning to base."
LaToya Graddy, a spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command, agreed, saying, "The aircraft's dash speed and transit time has to be taken in consideration," when comparing performance differences between the P-3 and P-8.
The international search for the Malaysian airliner ended on Thursday with aircraft crews finding no sign of the two objects spotted by a commercial satellite. The search is expected to resume Friday morning.