Anna Leask

Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Flight MH370: Hopes high amid gruelling search

Kiwi air force crew battle on with grind of sea hunt in effort to bring the relief of certainty to worried families.

The RNZAF crew's painstaking search of the ocean for clues to the fate of Flight 370 is like trying to find a specific grain of sand on a beach.
The RNZAF crew's painstaking search of the ocean for clues to the fate of Flight 370 is like trying to find a specific grain of sand on a beach.

You want so badly to see something that your eyes start playing tricks on you.

Every white cap of a wave, every ripple in the water - your heart rate quickens and you are convinced that this is it, this is the moment that Flight MH370 has been found.

Photos: RNZAF Orion searches for missing plane

Hours later, eyes exhausted from constantly scanning back and forth across the southern Indian Ocean, there's been no sign of the missing Boeing. But there's still hope. Tomorrow could be the day.

For the crew of the Royal New Zealand Air Force's P-3K2 Orion, this is a daily grind. Each day they spend 11 hours in the air scouring the ocean for any trace of the Malaysian aircraft and come home empty-handed, but eternally optimistic.

The Herald was invited to join the crew on Sunday as they searched a 2400sq km stretch of the ocean about 2130km off the coast of Perth.

It's not until you are on the aircraft, making your way to the search site, that you really understand the enormity of this task.

It takes just over three hours to reach the day's search area - the equivalent of flying from Auckland to Sydney but without the comforts of a commercial flight.

Video: NZ helps search for Malaysian Jet

The Orion is noisy and bumpy and it gets cold up there pretty quickly.

The expanse of the ocean is daunting. Once the Perth coastline fades from view, it hits you that all you will see for the next 10 or so hours are the sea and sky.

Until now, it's been easy to sit and think, "Why can't they just find something. It's a large plane; surely it can't be that hard."

But from the air, reality sets in - the unfathomable size of this ocean means finding any sign of MH370 is like finding a specific grain of sand on a beach.

The Orion has a crew of 12 and all are tasked with different roles in the search.

Led by Squadron Leader Brett McKenzie, this team has been searching for MH370 in Malaysia and Perth for two weeks now - 11 hours in the air, 12 hours' rest, and repeat.

There's not a word of complaint from any of them. This is their job, what they have trained to do.

On Sunday, hope was heightened after news of new satellite images, and a possible sighting of debris the day before.

"We're motivated to do the best job we can do," Flight Lieutenant Eric King tells the Herald.

"Every time we go up, we think we're going to find something."

Once we reach the search area, the crew take their positions - some at windows, some in front of radar screens. Their sole job for the next four hours is to watch the sea.

Those at the windows sit still; the only movement is the darting of their eyes back and forth.

It sounds like an easy job but it's physically and mentally demanding, and they switch every 30 minutes.

We're only about 60m-150m from the surface of the water and it's a strange feeling - you're nervous, but at the same time you want to get lower and closer so you have a better chance of spotting something, anything.

The Orion flies up and down paths within its designated search area.

One way is clear and visibility is good, up to 1500m.

But low cloud obstructs the view the other way and it's extremely taxing on the eyes as you squint and peer through to the water.

While it's exhausting, everyone on board is acutely aware that any second the missing plane could be spotted, ending weeks of mystery, speculation and misery.

Four hours later, daylight has faded and the search is over for the day.

It's not been successful, which is frustrating and disappointing for the crew.

But they are not dejected and are already thinking about the next run.

One crew member tells the Herald: "It would be awesome to find it - to find something for the families.

"It must be horrible for them. I just hope we find something."

Another says: "I'd love to be the person who finds it. I'd love to be that person who gets on the radio and announces it.

"I would love that more than anything.

"We've got as much chance as anyone else.

"We've got the equipment, we've got the crew, we just need to be in the right place at the right time."

- NZ Herald

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