MH370: The RNZAF crew behind 'Kiwi Rescue'

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 14:51 28/03/2014
Fairfax NZ

Another NZ Orion crew heads to Perth to help search for missing the Malaysia Airlines jet.

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For decades No 5 Squadron crews have been mostly anonymous types patrolling the lonely Pacific Ocean.

With the search for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 the Royal New Zealand Air Force has become a star with world media.

An alphabet of global networks have found its P3K Orion the best way to fly over the southern Indian Ocean.

The Kiwi in the roundel is regular fare on the BBC, CNN, ABC and Reuters.

"They like the relaxed atmosphere on board," an Orion crew member says, and points to a now famous Kiwi-built oven in the galley that got media notice.

A new crew are taking over the Orion at RAAF Base Pearce today, replacing the original that has been flying the mission coded KRC795 - "Kiwi Rescue".

In the pilot's seat in the new crew is the boss, Wing Commander Rob Shearer, born in 1966, the same year the RNZAF took delivery of its six Orions.

While the basic airframe of the Orion now over the Indian Ocean is the same, very little else is.

In September 2004 the Government approved spending $352 million upgrading the Orions.

Five of them have had the work and it is this that is making New Zealand's contribution in the Indian Ocean stand out.

The new radar systems and onboard software mean they can see dolphins broaching from a long way off, and pick distressed boats out easily.

Under the nose they've got electro-optic cameras, including infra-red, which can get close into any target on the water.

They can transmit live pictures and data from anywhere - and take in the data and pictures from others, meaning that they can see what everybody else sees over search areas.

Shearer says the upgrade has given the plane a vast expansion of search capability.

"Our situational awareness - the bubble - is so much bigger," he says.

Given that New Zealand has, at 15 million square kilometres, the world's largest search and rescue zone, the new electronics help.

Nevertheless, the human eye looking out the windows is still the best tool on any Orion.

Squadron Leader Mark Whiteside says Kiwi Rescue is mostly operating over the Indian Ocean search area at about 100 metres at 300kmh.

"That is about as slow as we can go."

In each window a crew member, trained in search techniques, will spend 30-minute spells watching a defined area out each side.

"Each second an area the size of a rugby field passes by," Whiteside says.

"You need as many eyes on as you can."

In the briefing room he flicked up a picture taken from an Orion and said that somewhere in it there was a person.

You've got a second to spot the person. None of the media managed it.

The culture aboard the Orion is to make the call - "mark mark" - the moment somebody sees something.

The pilot quickly hauls the four-engine aircraft into a steep turn and everybody, eyes and electronics, focus on finding what was first seen.

Whiteside reckons 80 per cent of the time, that mark turns out not to be significant.

"You call it all, even if you have doubts, call it."

No 5 Squadron has to get an Orion up at two hours' notice every day of the year.

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Even as Kiwi Rescue works the Indian Ocean, two other searches had taken place in New Zealand.

"This is a pretty busy squadron," says Whiteside, adding that the scale and time of Perth is not unusual for them.

"We are often away a week or more at a time, just combing the ocean."

They've a jargon of their own.

"Creeping line ahead" is a particular search pattern, being used in the Indian Ocean.

"Bingo" is not the win - it means they've only enough fuel left that they must turn for home.

An Orion has 12 aboard on any mission. For individuals, although MH370 is just another job, they're aware of the media focus.

Paul Chadwick says his partner is used to his disappearing over the ocean for long stretches. It's the same for all the crew families.

"They get a sense of pride, wives and girlfriends, husbands and boyfriends doing a job that is worthwhile."

Royal Air Force crewman Andy Burrows, on exchange to the RNZAF, is keeping up skills while the RAF work out whether to reform their disbanded maritime wing.

The new mission is regular work.

"In one way it's normal, it is what we do every day."

Jamin Baker says despite being hours away from any airfield, the P3K is well equipped and safe.

Boredom in the long transits is not an issue.

"There are plenty of things to do ... In the search area it is all focused on the task"

Adam Coates says a crew forms a strong bond.

"You come to know body language, you can come to know when people are tired."

It's like a rugby team.

"It is a team aircraft."

When Orions were first bought, they were the new Cold War frontline to combat Soviet submarines.

As if they still hunted submarines, Shearer is quick to assure that "air warfare" is still part of their role.

But there is a secret in the Orions that gives away the subtle change in thinking and geopolitics.

Orions have distinctive long stings on their tails. They are used to house MAD or the "magnetic amplification detector", which supposedly picks up the kink in the Earth's magnetic field caused by a submarine.

Experts now doubt it works and dropping sonar buoys is the preferred way of finding a submarine.

MAD has gone and that tail has no sting any more - but romantic pilots who like the stubby plane's lines have insisted the sting has remained under the big frigate bird on the tail.

- Fairfax Media

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