April 9, 2014

Sarasota company hopes its beacon will lead to missing Malaysian jet

Dukane-Seacom, a Sarasota subsidiary of South Florida-based Heico Corp., said its underwater locator beacons were believed to be on the missing Malaysian Airlines jet.

As the month-long search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet focuses on signals detected in the Indian Ocean over the past few days, a company in Southwest Florida is especially transfixed.

Authorities have told Dukane-Seacom, a Sarasota subsidiary of Hollywood-based Heico Corp., that it is most likely the manufacturer of the underwater locator beacons believed to be emitting signals that are reaching the end of their battery life.

A Navy ship heard sounds on Saturday and again Tuesday that are consistent with the two so-called “black boxes” that record cockpit voice and flight-data information, authorities have said. Each recorder includes one beacon that is about four inches long and an inch in diameter.

“I’m now optimistic that we will find the aircraft, or what is left of the aircraft, in the not-too-distant future,” Angus Houston, the Australian official heading search efforts, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “But we haven’t found it yet, because this is a very challenging business.”

The beacons, sometimes called “pingers,” are certified to last 30 days, but Dukane-Seacom president Anish Patel said they usually perform a few days longer. The signal starts to weaken quickly after 32 or 33 days, and typically does not last longer than 40 days, he said.

“I think they’ve already seen the signals they received over the weekend were stronger than the ones they picked up last night,” Patel said in an interview Wednesday. “If they get another day or two out of the unit, that would be great. Anything more than that would just be very, very fortunate.”

That means the search for Flight MH370, which disappeared March 8 after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is already on borrowed time. Officials hope that finding the recorders will help solve the mystery of why the plane flew off course and, according to satellite data, crashed in the southern Indian Ocean.

Search teams are hoping to better-target a specific location before the batteries run out because other options would take much longer, the AP reported. The beacons do not emit GPS data; Patel said that function does not work under water. The locators use straightforward technology that is the least likely to fail.

“At the end of the day, these units are designed to be as simple and as reliable as possible,” he said. “This type of acoustic pinging has proven to be reliable in the past. The device is relatively simple and durable, and that’s what you want. You don’t want to add complexity . . . by adding that complexity, you add that risk.”

Starting next March, a new mandate from regulators in the United States and Europe will require the pingers to send signals for 90 days instead of 30, a change prompted by the high-profile disappearance of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Recorders from that jet were not recovered until 2011.

“This is equipment of last resort,” Patel said. “It’s the last thing that you want to see operated on an aircraft because it means something catastrophic did happen. And that's why it’s so important that it work every time that it’s called upon, because we help bring closure to that catastrophe.”

Victor Mendelson, Heico’s co-president and president of the company’s electronic technologies group, said employees feel a mixture of pride in their product and sorrow that it had to be used at all.

“I’m proud that something we make will help, one, bring closure to the families, and two, hopefully will help the process of solving the mystery, which will in turn benefit aviation and a lot of people,” Mendelson said. “I really wish it never had to be used, but it’s good to know that what we make works and serves the purpose for which it is intended.”

Heico, a niche technology company with corporate headquarters in Hollywood and an office in Miami, acquired Dukane-Seacom in 2009. Mendelson said the parent company agreed in principle to buy the smaller firm that made the locator beacons in the week after Air France Flight 447 crashed.

“What attracted us to Seacom was the critical and niche nature of the business,” he said. “We felt that it was a device that would continue to be required on aircraft and there was probably an increasing need.”

The company was formerly located in St. Charles, Ill., but moved to join another Heico subsidiary, Radiant Power Corp., in a transition that was completed earlier this year. With 91 employees, the company manufactures about 100 beacons on any given day; Patel, also president of Radiant Power, said the company is the market leader in aviation-locator beacons.

Dukane-Seacom beacons have been involved in major airline crashes in shallow water, where the debris field was more easily found.

“If the debris field is the haystack, the unit is the needle,” Patel said. “Here, you had to find the needle before you found the haystack.”

This report was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.

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