The crash of SwissAir Flight 111, off Nova Scotia in September 1998, triggered one of the largest seabed search surveys in Canadian history. The primary search tools used were sidescan sonars (both conventional and focussed types) and multibeam sonars. The processed search data needed to be distributed on a daily basis to other elements of the fleet for precise location of divers and other optical seabed search instruments (including laser linescan and ROV video). As a result of the glacial history of the region, many natural targets, similar in gross nature to aircraft debris were present. These included widespread linear bedrock outcrop patterns together with near ubiquitous glacial erratic boulders. Because of the severely broken-up nature of the remaining aircraft debris, sidescan imaging alone was often insufficient to unambiguously identify targets. The complementary attributes of higher resolution, but poorly located, sidescan imagery together with slightly lower resolution, but excellently navigated multibeam sonar proved to be one of critical factors in the success of the search. It proved necessary to rely heavily on the regional context of the seabed (provided by the multibeam sonar bathymetry and backscatter imagery) to separate natural geomorphic targets from anomalous anthropogenic debris. In order to confidently prove or disprove a potential target, the interpreter required simultaneous access to the full resolution sidescan data in the geographic context of the multibeam framework. Specific software tools had to be adapted or developed shipboard to provide this capability. Whilst developed specifically for this application, these survey tools can provide improved processing speed and confidence as part of more general mine hunting, hydrographic, engineering or scientific surveys.


Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping

Publication Date


Journal Title

Shallow Water Survey Conference (SWS)

Conference Date

Oct 20 - Oct 23, 1999

Publisher Place

Sydney, Australia

Document Type

Conference Proceeding