Jay Larsen and his 20-year-old son, Kolter, would normally be in Montana this time of year, carrying on a family hunting tradition while trekking across the high country in search of deer and elk.
Instead, the father-son duo is in pursuit of something much bigger, which could affect hundreds of family members searching for answers.
Jay and Kolter are key members of a search crew on board the GO Phoenix, a vessel scouring the Indian Ocean for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370), which disappeared March 8 while ferrying 239 passengers and crewmembers from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China.
And while the Flathead Valley natives long to be home tracking elk sign through the wet November snow, the significance of their contribution to the search expedition isn’t lost on either of them.
For seven months, family members of the missing passengers and flight crew have been waiting for answers buried in a watery abyss, and Larsen hopes his highly specialized sonar technology can help bring them to light.
Jay Larsen owns the Whitefish-based deep-sea survey company Hydrospheric Solutions LLC (HSI), and, as chief engineer of the sonar kit that the ship is towing miles beneath the ocean surface, he has spent the last month mapping the undulating mountains and crevasses of the ocean floor, working round-the-clock to locate the missing flight in the remote southern Indian Ocean. His son, Kolter, an engineering student at Montana State University – Jay’s alma mater – joined the crew somewhat serendipitously as an electrical technician while taking a semester off college.
The sonar that HSI is towing 3.2 miles beneath the ship is called the SLH ProSAS-60, owned by SL Hydrospheric LLC, a company that Larsen still co-manages and co-founded in 2008 with the purpose of bringing the rarefied device to the deep-sea surveying market.
The Larsens’ company and ground-breaking technology emerged out of relative obscurity when SL Hydrospheric and the 6,000-pound sonar vehicle were a part of an effort to help locate the F-1 rocket engines that powered Apollo 11’s Saturn V rocket, which landed three American astronauts on the moon in 1969. On that expedition, Jay was an integral part of the search and recovery team led by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
The Synthetic Aperture Sonar works by sending acoustic pings off the ocean floor to form images with a resolution much higher than conventional sonar technology, and Kolter has an intimate understanding of its nuts and bolts.
“Kolter had been involved with the sonar since the beginning, even helping me solder up power supply boards on our ping-pong table in the garage at points,” Jay said. “He has been out on vessels a few times but never anything close to this scale. So, he had about as good of a grasp on the system as anyone. He is fitting right in with the rest of the crew and doing a great job as an ET.”
Initial reports showed the plane disappearing over the South China Sea, which is too shallow for the company’s sonar device to be of any use, but as the mystery expanded and analyses showed the plane heading west over Sumatra and into the Indian Ocean, the technology available on the market became more esoteric.
“That definitely put it in the realm of our search capabilities,” Larsen said.
HSI and Phoenix International, a company that provides solutions for underwater operations, put out a bid for the contract with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the agency that initially took the reins on the multinational search.
The ATSB ultimately selected a Dutch oil-and-gas consulting firm, but the Malaysian government stepped up and awarded HSI and Phoenix a direct contract to conduct their own search. The Malaysian Defense Minister is heading the search, and joined the crew on board the ship to launch the mission and thank them for their efforts.
By the time Larsen and his crew set out, military search crews had already spent about 100 days scanning the ocean surface for debris after the Boeing 777 went missing, but turned up nothing linked to the aircraft. An initial underwater search also failed to find any trace of Flight 370.
Larsen and HSI began their hunt for the missing flight, mobilizing in Singapore before heading south to Jakarta, Indonesia for some last-minute refinements.
“Then we kept on south and did some equipment testing in the shoals of Christmas Island. After that it was something like six more days south to the site. The site is up to 5,200 meters (3.2 miles) deep and the equipment has been working well,” Larsen said. “We’ve had pretty good weather with winds never above 40 MPH and wave heights never more than 4-5 meters, which we can handle in a vessel as large as the GO Phoenix, though we have to strap [the equipment] down well.”
The mission has also dredged up personal memories for the Larsen family, as Jay’s father, Larry, who in 1992, while working as a logger, was one of nine loggers on board a helicopter that crashed in a remote area of Alaska. Larry survived, but hours passed before it was noticed missing and dispatch was notified. He spent months enduring surgeries for life-threatening injuries, while his co-workers perished.
Katrina Larsen, Jay’s wife and Kolter’s mother, and whose logistical expertise figures prominently into the company, said the tragedy was a defining moment for the family, and has made them more empathetic to the plight of the families awaiting answers.
Knowing that her husband and son are serving in such integral roles in a major search mission has been a source of pride, even as the family is apart with little contact.
“One thing we are really proud of is to be Montanans out doing some really cool, unique and highly technical work in the world that might not normally be associated with our state. Jay and I are proud to have been raised and educated in Montana and to have been given the opportunity to raise and educate our two kids here as well,” she said. “We don’t feel living in a small community has to inhibit one’s ability to do really big stuff. Both SLH and HSI are Montana corporations and we make every effort to infuse our crew with hard working Montana folk. They are the best variety. Right now we have four Montanans on the crew, including Jay and Kolter.”