UK & World News

  • 26 March 2014, 23:44

Missing Plane: Scanning The Seas For MH370

"Unfortunately, we don't have a scoop for you" - those were the parting words from Australia's Air Force 11 squadron, crew 3, as we stepped off their P3 Orion aircraft following a search for MH370.

Every crew operating out of the Pearce air base north of Perth, Western Australia, wants to be the crew that finally locates the missing Malaysian airliner.

11 Squadron are more used to hunting for submarines on behalf of the Royal Australian Air Force. 

As part of Australia's contribution to the multinational search for MH370, we accompanied them on a mission 1300 miles off the coast of Western Australia.  

It was a four hour flight to the 'crash site', where the aircraft's crew searched for three and a half hours. 

We knew we had arrived at the scene when Captain Peter Moore switched off one of his plane's four propeller engines, a move that saved fuel and prolonged the searching time by half an hour.

The advantages of technology in the hunt for MH370 are obvious. 

Satellite imagery, in particular, has guided the search. Close-up, however, technology's limits are equally clear.

Take some of the information fed onto a bank of monitors, the so-called "tech-bar", inside the aircraft.

Infrared cameras stream footage of the sea onto screens, as does the plane's radar. 

Both systems are effective in the aircraft's usual role of hunting for submarines but in the circumstances surrounding the search for MH370 they are not ideal.

Radar cannot penetrate water and so is relying on chancing upon debris protruding above the surface.

Infrared cameras pick out sources of heat; the only trouble is that any piece of debris will be as cold as the sea around it.

So among all the sophisticated kit involved in this multinational search effort it comes down to the human eye as much as anything else. 

Trained spotters rotate in 20 minute shifts, the time deemed as an appropriate limit for extreme concentration. 

They are taught to scan the scene before them from side to side, according to the direction in which they read and write. 

Our trip with 11 Squadron was the fourth made by the crew on this job and they have modified their approach over time. 

They scan the sea from a height 700 metres - some aircraft have gone lower but 11 Squadron have found that 700m increases the area they can scan at any one time.

It also presents the opportunity for the spotters to get a view straight down - important, they say, for debris they believe is probably resting just beneath the ocean's surface.

Looking out of the window of the P3 Orion you gain a clear sense of the challenge facing search teams. 

When you look out of the domed portholes in the aircraft skin you see a vast expanse of ocean extending far into the horizon. 

11 Squadron did make a couple of sightings during their search of 900 square miles - but sadly not of the missing aircraft. 

The crew spotted some dolphins and a killer whale.

Since the announcement that MH370 had crashed, there is - perhaps - less emotional investment in the search and recovery operation. 

No longer are search crews mindful of a miracle - the possibility that someone, somewhere, might be found alive. 

Crews are now wholly focused on a job that is about recovery and the gathering of evidence.

It is also about the bereaved families. In the words of 11 Squadron's Captain Peter Moore, for the victim's loved ones "closure matters". And that is what drives the search of strangers.

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