Thu, May 30, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Oceanic database could aid searchers

By Chen Hsien-wen 陳先文

After the sudden disappearance from radar screens of China Airlines flight CI611, the National Rescue Center mobilized vessels and aircraft from the navy, air force and coast guard for search and rescue operations, while the airborne police were also placed on alert. Some bodies and parts of the plane's wreckage have been found. The speedy completion of the search for the wreckage and victims depends not only on a tight network of ships and aircraft, but also on the integrated use of various types of oceanographic information and equipment.

On July 16, 1999, an aircraft piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed into the sea off the east coast of the US. The US air force and coast guard aircraft and ships failed to find anything, research ships from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the navy used "side-scan sonars" to scan the seabed around the crash site and compared the information with previously seabed data. Kennedy's plane was found five days later, on July 21.

The search was a model under-sea search and rescue operation. The extensive use of scientific methods and instruments maximized its effectiveness and reflect an approach that we would do well to adopt.

Seabed topography is mostly level and its slopes are not too steep, while an airplane has irregular and sharp, protruding ends. Possible locations of a downed aircraft can therefore be identified from the scanned images before camera-equipped undersea vehicles are deployed. Many countries have established various types of databases related to disasters at sea in order to maximize the chances of success for rescuers.

Taiwan has yet to establish such a database. Various information is scattered around different government and academic institutions. We could compile all this data into a single database to contain electronic navigation charts, geodetic data, data about tides and currents, shipping routes and maritime disaster data as well as a meteorological history and forecasts. These could be used in conjunction with information from numerical models, satellite images and coastal radars to provide an important basis for decisions about and management of search and rescue operations.

Ships frequently run into a host of dangers. When the Belize-registered freighter Kuangyuan sank off the coast of Taiwan during typhoon Chebi last year, only four of its 23-member crew survived. The whereabouts of Hualien No. 1 and its 21-member crew, which disappeared in February 2000 while sailing from Hualien to Tamsui, remain a mystery. I suggest that the national search and rescue institutions quickly put together an oceanic database mainly geared toward search and rescue work. This will greatly enhance the ability of search and rescue agencies to execute operations at sea.

Chen Hsien-wen is an assistant professor at the maritime police department of Central Police University.

Translated by Francis Huang

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