Southland pilot aware of families' pain

RESPONSIBILITY: Flight Lieutenant Dave Smith, who grew up in Invercargill
RESPONSIBILITY: Flight Lieutenant Dave Smith, who grew up in Invercargill

"It is like looking for a pea in Invercargill."

This from Air Force operational pilot Flight Lieutenant Dave Smith, who has been part of the massive search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in a remote area of the southern Indian Ocean.

The Southland pilot struggled to find words to describe the enormity and sheer scale of the search, but believed the analogy of finding a pea somewhere in his home town was apt.

The three-week hunt for Flight MH370 has turned up no sign of the Boeing 777, which vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

Ten planes and 11 ships have been scouring the 254,000 square kilometre search zone in the southern Indian Ocean, about 1850 kilometres west of Australia.

The search area is 1 times bigger than the size of New Zealand.

Invercargill-born and raised Smith has been at the forefront of the search, one of the biggest in aviation history.

After 115 hours of flying in 2 weeks, Smith and his fellow P-3K2 Orion crew members were replaced with another crew late last week.

"We were encroaching on our maximum flying limit," he told The Southland Times from the RNZAF Base Auckland at Whenuapai yesterday.

The efforts of Smith and his fellow searchers have been watched closely by the world's media - it is a far cry from Smith's humble Southland origins where he was a student at Aparima College and then a fitter and welder trainee at the Southland Polytechnic, now SIT.

However, it was a discussion with his former polytech tutor that inspired him to serve his country and eventually sit in the pilot's seat of a P-3K2 Orion.

"My tutor was a former Defence Force member and he put the idea of joining up in my head," he said.

Seven years as an aircraft technician, working on P-3 Orions, was enough to convince the Southlander he wanted to fly instead of fix the planes.

It was Monday, March 10 when Smith was told to put down his morning cup of coffee in the Auckland base and told to go home and pack his bags because he was off to Southeast Asia.

That afternoon, the Orion crew were in Malaysia where they spent almost a week searching off the coast of Thailand and beyond the horizon towards Sri Lanka.

New information came to hand and Perth was their next destination along with the chasing world media.

"There was no media in Perth when we took off for our first search," Smith said. "When we returned, we were met by the BBC, CNN, Australian ABC and more."

Although the eyes of the Orion crew were intensely focused on the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, the eyes of the family members whose loved ones had simply vanished without trace were intensely focused on the efforts of Smith and the dozens of others involved in the search.

"You are aware every time you take off that the hopes of family members and loved ones are with you," Smith said.

"We are constantly thinking of the families and friends affected by the tragedy of MH370, it gives us the motivation to do our very best every time we search."

Asked if he believed Flight MH370 would ever be found, Smith said he hoped so.

"When you put in this much effort you want a result, especially for the families of those missing, the rest of the world wants to know what happened, and from an aviation safety perspective I think answers are important."

If the search continues, Smith and his crew are ready and willing to get back in the air.

The Southland Times