Aboard A Plane Searching For Flight 370

U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon with Nine-Man Crew Scours 7,500 Square Miles of Sea

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 17 MAR 14) … Trefor Moss and Newley Purnell

OVER THE BAY OF BENGAL – Aboard a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon, the U.S. military’s most advanced maritime surveillance aircraft, the nine-man crew scoured a swath of sea some 7,500 square miles – an area bigger than New Jersey – in the hopes of finding Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

From the window, the sea and sky smudged together in an indistinguishable gray blur, and every white wave-top appeared momentarily to the untrained eye to be something important. But the crew found no evidence of the missing plane on Sunday, having covered only a fraction of the Bay of Bengal and the vast Indian Ocean to the south.

The P-8A is the most sophisticated aircraft available to help find the Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished more than a week ago. It can fly 575 miles an hour and is equipped with sensors and imaging devices strong enough to spot submarines.

Yet even its high-tech features face long odds in locating the missing jet, given the vast area yet to be searched. Current guesses about the possible location of the plane now encompass several hundred thousand square miles of water, much of it more remote than any of the maritime areas explored so far.

Acting on intelligence of a possible debris field to the north of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the P-8A – designated Rescue 74 – departed Kuala Lumpur late Sunday morning, heading 900 miles northwest. The aircraft had only joined the search effort the day before.

The target area was a patch of water in the eastern Bay of Bengal measuring 60 square miles. Descending to an altitude of 1,000 feet – at which point debris is clearly visible to the naked eye – Rescue 74 began systematically combing the area, back and forth, in eight parallel strips. At the start of the operation, a sonar buoy able to detect underwater sounds was fired from the aircraft’s belly with a loud whoosh into the sea below to mark its current position

Five crewmen monitoring consoles on the P-8A’s port side used radar and both optical and infrared cameras to sweep the ocean’s surface, while spotters also visually scanned the water. Dashes on the radar scope appeared sporadically, only to be dismissed as small fishing boats.

After nearly two hours, all 3,600 square miles of the grid had been searched, without any sight of the missing plane.

The P-8A, which began operating in December, is based on the Boeing 737 airframe. But it bears little resemblance to the passenger jet on the inside, as seats and almost all the windows make way for huge banks of electronics, hydraulics and racks loaded with sonar buoys.

A key advantage of the P-8A is its ability to reach its designated search area faster – and so stay on station for longer – than older aircraft.

“If it is under the plane, we’ll see it,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Trumbull, a 20-year Navy veteran from St. Petersburg, Fl. and one of two tactical coordinators overseeing the search mission. “It’s pretty hard to miss something with all these pairs of eyes.”

As the day progressed, the sonar buoy informed the crew that the ocean current was moving southeast. So they set up a new search area 50 miles in that direction, where they figured the rumored debris field might have drifted since their intelligence came in two days earlier.

In doing so, they abandoned plans to explore an as-yet-unsearched area – a 300-mile by 400 mile block designated Area H by the Malaysian authorizes to the west.

After 4½ hours of searching, and 7,500 square miles of ocean, Rescue 74 turned back to Kuala Lumpur, having found no sign of the lost airliner, and with most of the Indian Ocean still waiting to be covered.

The great challenge for the crew is overcoming the sea’s monotony. As the Poseidon flew at around 280 knots, its consoles showed nothing but the empty ocean below rolling past, like a looped tape, for hour after hour – an extreme test of concentration for the operators.

Lieutenant Commander Trumbull made light of the tedium, and the sea’s tricks.

“We’ve been flying these missions for years,” he said, though he accepted that the case of Flight 370 was extremely unusual.

With the search area still expanding, Rescue 74 is unlikely to be returning to Okinawa, Japan – where it is currently deployed – any time soon.

“It’s a difficult task,” David Levy, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet, which is coordinating the U.S. search, told The Wall Street Journal.

“Before, we had a defined search field in the Gulf of Thailand,” when rescuers thought the plane had disappeared not far from Malaysia. “Now we have an ever-expanding search field. Time is not on our side,” Mr. Levy said.

Malaysia is also requesting satellite data from the U.S., China and France and radar transcripts from several more nations as it struggles to understand where the multinational search effort ought to be focused.

“We do our job and hope for the best,” shrugged Petty Officer Robert Pillars, from San Diego, Calif. “If we can say that we have now searched that area, that’s better than nothing.”

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