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In Unprecedented International Search, American Navy Lends A Hand


The search for the missing plane has expanded to a vast area, stretching from Kazakhstan in Central Asia to the southern ends of the vast Indian Ocean. For the latest on those efforts, we're joined now by Commander William Marks who is spokesperson for the U.S. 7th Fleet, the Navy's biggest fleet. Commander Marks, welcome.

COMMANDER WILLIAM MARKS: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

SIEGEL: And can you tell us where you are and what the U.S. Navy is doing in this search?

MARKS: Certainly. I'm aboard the command ship U.S.S. Blue Ridge. We are currently on a port visit into the Manila, Philippines. From this ship, we can command and control the entire fleet, the 7th Fleet stretches from the International Date Line by Hawaii, all the way to the India/Pakistan border and then, north of Japan all the way south of Australia.

SIEGEL: And at this point, how much participation is there in the search for the missing Malaysian airliner?

MARKS: Well, we have two of our best long range search assets there right now. We have a P3 Orion that is flying out of Kuala Lumpur that's taking the northern part of the Indian Ocean, and we have a P8 Poseidon that is our newest search and patrol aircraft and that is flying from Perth, Australia to the Southern Indian Ocean.

SIEGEL: I mean, give us some sense of how many trips, how long these craft would have to crisscross an area to feel that they'd done an exhaustive search of it.

MARKS: The way I'd characterize it for people is if you superimpose the map of the United States into this area, this is, like, trying to find the person somewhere between New York and California, you just don't know where. So what we do is we have our long range patrol aircraft. They'll fly out about 1,000, 1200 nautical miles and they'll search with their very advanced surface search radar and these planes can search upward of 15,000 square miles a day, which sounds really big, except when you're looking at the entirety of the Indian Ocean.

And that's just a very, very small slice.

SIEGEL: Commander Marks, you spoke of surface search radar. Will this search depend on some part of the craft floating on the surface and then leading to what might be the rest of the plane underwater? Is that what has to happen here for one of these planes to spot something?

MARKS: Right now, we are only searching on the surface of the water for a couple reasons. One, this ocean is just so deep. If any wreckage did sink down to the bottom, it's much further than anything could be detected. But really debris does float at least some of it for this long. The P8 and the P3's surface search radars are very advanced. They can see things the size of a basketball or a small wooden crate.

So right now, we are focusing solely on the surface of the water.

SIEGEL: How would you deal with the problem of spotting something on the surface more than 10 days after this plane might have gone down?

MARKS: Well, there is a command and control system. We're in very close coordination with the government of Malaysia, of Australia and civilian organizations. So there's very close coordination. I'll give an example. Let's say the P8 does find something. It goes down and it might be a piece of wreckage. Well, we would call that in and it there's another ship that happens to be closer, or a helicopter, one of those other organizations can vector that in to get a closer look.

Well, as you mention, we're 10 days away. So the area we're searching is simply gigantic.

SIEGEL: So the reason that the area has been growing larger in the various graphics that people have seen over the past week isn't just rethinking what might have happened to the plane, it's knowing how many days this plane has been missing and how far from the point of the crash some debris might be at this stage.

MARKS: Absolutely. Time is not on our side and as every hour goes by, the search area gets bigger. And when you're talking about days in this vast ocean, it is an extraordinary challenge.

SIEGEL: Commander Marks, thank you very much for talking with us today.

MARKS: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Commander William Marks, a spokesperson for the U.S. 7th Fleet speaking to us from aboard the U.S.S. Blue Ridge which is in Manila in the Philippines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.