The Kiwis searching for MH370

Last updated 09:14 24/03/2014
Kiwis search fro MH370
Pilot Dave Smith (right) gives a pre-flight briefing before taking off to search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at the RAAF base Pearce near Perth.

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A New Zealand airman searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 has told the world how tough it is to fly the extended searches they are doing.

The BBC yesterday flew on a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3K Orion over the Indian Ocean.

Correspondent Jonathan Head says that with its "its blunt, unswept lines and massive four-blade propellers, the P3 Orion is a throwback to a bygone era of aviation".

It had first been delivered to New Zealand in 1966 "making it considerably older than most of the crew".

Squadron Leader Brett "Slim" McKenzie is the pilot with 25 years experience, some of it on Air New Zealand Boeing 747s.

"It's very tough," he said of the visual searching they do.

"You are travelling in an aircraft at that's doing 200mph [322kmh] and you could be as low as 250-300 feet [76-91 metres] above the water and the world is whistling past you and you are looking for an object among the white caps of the waves.

"You have got to be concentrating constantly for two, two-and-a-half hours. A couple of moments of inattention you might miss something that is important."

The BBC said based on the airframe of a mid-sized 1950s airliner, most of the P3K's interior is taken up by a rack of large screens on which information from the plane's formidable arsenal sensors is displayed and analysed.

It has sophisticated surface radar, infra-red and high-definition cameras in a revolving turret.

Some crew are at their screens the whole trip, but there is no suitable technology to spot floating objects such as seat cushions, hence the visual searches.

At the search area McKenzie takes the plane down sharply through the clouds, until the aircraft is skimming a little over 100m above the surface of the steel-grey sea.

"It moves along a line for more than 200 kilometres, then turns, and comes back, a bit like a lawnmower," Head says.

Everyone dons lifejackets and all are shown how to pull on immersion suits.

"But the P3 is remarkably stable, flying like this for hours at low level."

Crew then sit at large oval windows, keeping headsets on to communicate any sightings, and a marker pen to write down the bearing and distance of any object.

And they scan, moving their eyes back and forth methodically, trying to spot anything out of the ordinary amid the endless white-cap waves.

"This is something they have done many times before, on search-and-rescue missions in the Pacific," the BBC reports.

They did not see much although at one point they passed over a large pod of dolphins, diving through the waves.

"At one point the plane veers off to investigate a report of a large object outside our search area; it turns out to be a massive clump of seaweed," Head says.

One the way back the crew can relax.

They tuck into microwaved meals - the New Zealanders have actually put an oven in the back of the aircraft to give themselves the option of a roast dinner, but they rarely have time to use it.

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There will be a debriefing after they land, and a short night's sleep, before they are back for the next mission the following day. 

- Stuff


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