Seattle: A global tracking system using U.S. and Soviet satellites quickly pinpointed within a mile where an Air India 747 plunged into the sea off Ireland last month with 329 people aboard, a British Royal Air Force officer said Tuesday.

The system picked up emergency beacon signals less than an hour after the last radio contact with the ill-fated airliner bound for London from Montreal, said Squadron Leader David R. Mason, coordinator RAF’s search and rescue center in Plymouth, England.

Mason told a news conference that the tracking system may have chopped hours off the time it could have taken to find the downed plane using conventional search to ground station in Toulouse, France, were relayed to air search and rescue forces the morning of June 23, Mason said. The coordinates provided by the international tracking system were within a mile of where the plane went down.

The Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking system, SARSAT (the Soviet counterpart is called COSPAS), carries payloads provided by France and Canada with the capability to track distress signals and relay coordinates to ground stations.

SARSAT “gave us an accurate position,’ Mason said. “What we had (before that) was the last position the aircraft was heard from” nearly an hour before.

Without the satellite fix, search planes would probably have had to fly search patterns over a large area of water, because the crash location could have been 200 to 300 miles away from where the plane was at the time of the last radio contact, Mason said.

“It would have been a tremendous area for us to cover,” he said.

Searchers found debris and bodies floating on the surface and recovered 133 bodies before the day ended. The so-called “black boxes” were recovered from 6,700 feet below the surface within the area pinpointed by the satellites.

Officials in India reported Tuesday the cockpit voices of the flight crew “sounded normal.” They would not say if they heard an explosion.

Mason is one of more than 100 representatives from 11 countries meeting at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric headquarters in Seattle this week to work out the technical details of providing blanket satellite search and rescue service worldwide.

The system which operates mainly in the northern hemisphere has been credited with saving close to 500 lives since it became operable in September 1982.

Article extracted from this publication >>  July 26, 1985