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Chapter Five
The search out at sea

UP IN the air in an Australian P-3 Orion search plane, the four orange objects bobbing on the southern Indian Ocean looked tantalisingly like remnants of life jackets.

It was a “promising lead” and got searchers excited on March 30. But after the objects were retrieved and analysed, they turned out to be nothing more than fishing equipment. “They have nothing to do with the missing flight,” said a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Another day, another sighting, another false alarm. Where had MH370 vanished to?

The search has been unprecedented in terms of global assets and intelligence. At the height, 26 countries, close to 60 ships and some 50 planes were scouring more than 2.24 million square nautical miles — four-fifths the size of the United States — for the missing aircraft.

Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels and Navy ships at a local naval base from a fishing port at Phu Quoc island on March 12, 2014, in the early days of the search. -- PHOTO: AFP
Australian searchers onboard an AP-3C Orion aircraft scour the Indian Ocean for debris of the missing plane. -- PHOTO: AFP
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits Pearce Base in Perth on March 31, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

From satellite giant Inmarsat to the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), air crash and other experts descended on Kuala Lumpur to unravel the mystery.

Yet, nothing. The few “credible” and “promising” leads have yielded no information other than how the sea is littered with trash.

The search has swung from the South China Sea to the Andaman Sea to the Bay of Bengal to, finally, the cold and inhospitable southern Indian Ocean.

On March 8 when the plane disappeared, the Malaysian authorities mobilised all its resources to hunt for the plane in the last known location over the South China Sea. Fifteen air force aircraft, six navy ships and three coast guard vessels were despatched to the sea.

Given that the plane had disappeared as it was crossing over into Vietnamese airspace, Vietnam was also prompt in offering help. It sent two navy boats from Phu Quoc island as well as two jets and one helicopter from Ho Chi Minh City.

Singapore was also quick to send a C-130 Hercules aircraft, joining countries such as the United States and the Philippines in offering air assistance early on. Overnight searches, however, turned up nothing.

By Day 2, six countries were already involved in the search. Singapore increased its asset deployment with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) sending its missile corvette, frigate, Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk naval helicopter and its submarine support vessel, the MV Swift Rescue. The search focused on an expanded area in the South China Sea and the west coast of Malaysia.

Search operations became more complex on the third day, after revelations that the jet had turned back across the Malaysian peninsula and could have ended up in the Strait of Malacca. As officials widened the scope of the search from 20 to 50 nautical miles, the massive multi-nation search effort grew.


Eyeballing the specks

Despite the technological capabilities of the planes and ships involved in the search, Straits Times photojournalist Desmond Lim discovered that the actual searching was very much dependent on good old human eyeballs.

He joined the RSAF C-130 aircraft on its mission and reported: “The vastness of the seas was overwhelming... We saw some vessels in the seas, but at about 500 feet (150m) up in the air, we were circling too high up to be able to tell whether they were search-and-rescue boats, or just traditional Vietnamese fishing boats. They often appeared no bigger than a speck in the sea of blue. Even the lone tankers cutting through the waters on the horizon were hard to spot.

Personnel from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) scanning the seas about 140 nautical miles north-east of Kota Baru, Kelantan, for any signs of of the missing plane. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Oil slicks are seen in the sea about 140 nautical miles north-east of Kota Bahru, Kelantan, but they were later established to be not from the missing plane. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

“The loud droning and constant vibrations from the jet engines began to take its toll on the servicemen, hours into the operation, as they took shifts to scan the waters. Some took a quick shut-eye, and other stepped in to fill the gap. Many were visibly tired after a few hours of intense concentration. A servicemen was asked by his partner to take a break, but he waved him off, signing to him with his hands saying: ‘Later. Ten more minutes.’

“Some were seen clutching white vomit bags, apparently nauseous from the constant staring at moving objects and the circling of the plane. The crew took turns to have lunch — cup noodles and biscuits. No one seemed to mind the simple meal as they wolfed it down and quickly headed back to their posts, seemingly aware of the urgency and importance of the responsibility on their shoulders.”

In response to mounting criticism about the futile search efforts which kept switching focus, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said: “This is unprecedented what we are going through, coordinating so many countries together. We are looking at so many aircraft and so many countries to coordinate and a vast area for us to search. Each time that passes, I fear that the search and rescue becomes just a search but we will never give up hope.”


Turning point to the two arcs

The turning point in the search came on March 15 when Prime Minister Najib Razak revealed the plane appeared to have been deliberately diverted and could have gone as far north as Kazakhstan in Central Asia or southwards towards the Indian Ocean.

Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand withdrew from the South China Sea and India suspended its search around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and in the Bay of Bengal.

By March 18, the search area in the Indian Ocean spanned a mind-boggling 2.24 million square nautical miles.

It took another two days for more credible leads to emerge and this time, it came from satellite images of possible debris 2,500km south-west of Perth. Australia took charge of the search, working out of Base Pearce in Perth. But efforts have been frustrated by the remoteness of the area as well as the foul weather which worsened already stormy seas.


Intense, methodical and gruelling

On board Royal New Zealand Air Force P3K2 Orion, Straits Times journalist Tan Hui Yee discovered just how intense the search process is.

The Orion has been doing heavy lifting in the search taking place some 1,800km west of Perth. The four-engine turboprop aircraft was introduced for anti-submarine warfare in the 1960s and is still used by many countries for maritime patrol. It can sustain the six-hour transits to and from Pearce air base north of Perth, with about three hours left to spare for the search.

Straits Times journalist Tan Hui Yee joins the Royal New Zealand Air Force on a P3K2 Orion before setting off to search for the missing plane. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A pre-flight briefing is conducted for the crew of Royal New Zealand Air Force. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A member of the Royal New Zealand Air Force launches a smoke buoy into the sea below from a hatch on the floor of the plane. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

The 13 Royal New Zealand Air Force officers on the plane are members of the Auckland-based Number 5 Squadron. They spend the bulk of their time searching for stranded fishermen and boaters, or spotting fishing trawlers with illegal catch in waters around Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and all the way down to the South Pole.

These men are trained to spot and differentiate between fishing lines, boat sails, sealife and plane wrecks — but it is the last they have failed to find so far.

“Quite often you will come across very similar objects, whether they be fishing buoys, boats or the general flotsam,” said Captain Rob Shearer. “Every now and again you come across something different, maybe like a big orange banner. But we haven’t seen anything that conclusively provides evidence. We haven’t seen an airplane seat. We haven’t seen a seat cushion. We haven’t seen a part of a wing or a part of a fuselage.”

Experts reckon most parts of the plane would have sunk to the seabed or been dispersed by the tempestuous currents by now. But they are hoping — with the help of oceanographic models — to locate the wreckage by tracing floating debris back to its origin. “We are still hopeful that we will find something... because we’ve got to find something eventually,” said navigator Brent Collier. “But it’s very hard work.”

The plane is hooked up with some sophisticated equipment — radar and cameras linked to on-board computers, cylindrical shaped saltwater-activated smoke buoys, “sonobuoys” with hydrophones that allow crew to detect sound underwater and global positioning system (GPS) buoys.

On their search missions, the men comb their assigned areas meticulously, poring over the patch of ocean strip by strip, lawnmower-style. It is an intense, methodical and gruelling process. One man peers into the sea through a special distortion-free window, ready to photograph any suspicious object. Another glues his eyes to radar readings and real-time images captured by a camera under the nose of the plane. Two pilots, meanwhile, take the Orion up rapid ascents to scan the ocean with radar, as well as quick descents to allow visual scans.

The camera zooms in on a suspicious item bearing circular shapes on the surface. The chatter on the plane’s radio system picks up a notch. The plane dips its wing, circling around for a closer look. A sergeant jumps up from his seat by the window and quickly retrieves a smoke buoy. He shoves the cylinder through a special hatch in the floor, into the sea below. Next, he hauls out the GPS buoy while the plane whirls round again. A blast of cold air enters the cabin as a colleague pulls open the plane door.

“Now, now, now!” someone calls out through the radio system. He hurls the buoy into the water, near the object so that the search authorities can track its location through GPS.

Later, while scrutinising its photograph, he mutters to a colleague: “You know what it looks like to me? Landing gear lights.”

The latter replies: “Naa, they won’t be able to float.” He thinks it is fishing equipment.

No matter. All significant sightings are recorded with their locations and reported back to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.


A search for the long haul

It is a search that could carry on for years. “The search has been vastly complicated by the long delays in searching in the wrong areas,” said Assistant Professor Terence Fan, an aviation expert at the Singapore Management University. “Any debris from the airplane would likely have been swept far away from the point of impact in the sea” he added.

Funding will be an issue, said Ravi Madavaram, an aviation analyst with consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan: “The estimate is that a 45-day search costs about US$5 million to US$10 million. It is possible that China will continue to fund programmes to find the missing plane. However, this is dependent on hope more than on reality.”

A section of the screen showing the southern Indian Ocean to the west of Australia, at the headquarters of satellite communications company Inmarsat in London. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A South Korean officer wears a Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 search and rescue team patch on his sleeve at RAAF Base Pearce near Perth on March 31, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Jacques Astre, president of industry consultancy International Aviation Safety Solutions and a former United States Federal Aviation Administration official, is not even 100 per cent convinced the right places are being scoured.

“The signals — satellite ‘pings’ from the plane that were picked up by Inmarsat — are usually sent from aircraft to provide engine monitoring data to the airline and manufacturer,” he said. “My understanding is that the airline did not subscribe to the service but the aircraft still transmitted a signal without the engine monitoring data. In essence the aircraft was sending an empty message.”

What Inmarsat engineers “cleverly” did was to use the empty transmissions to track where the aircraft could have been when the transmissions were made, Astre said. “To do that requires quite a bit of mathematics and most probably certain assumptions that may or may not be correct such as speed, altitude and direction. That may also be why they have not yet found the aircraft and why any assumptions may have to be refined further,” he said.

He added: “The investigation is far from complete... We need to know if all the surrounding countries gave investigators all the information they have. And we need to prove a northern route was not used, not just dismiss it altogether.”

Aviation and air crash experts have no doubt the search will continue for as long as it takes to find MH370 but the intensity could be scaled back, they said.

H.R. Mohandas, a former pilot who teaches aviation at Republic Polytechnic, said: “The search is challenging given the location and tough conditions but it will go on in the interest of aviation safety.”

It may take many months and even years to find MH370 and even then, there is no guarantee the truth will ever be known.