Straits Times photojournalist Desmond Lim travelled with an RSAF C-130 aircraft helping in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which went missing over the South China Sea on March 8. He discovered that a search-and-rescue operation over the open seas is a challenging mission which requires intense concentration but which doesn't always yield results. Here is a first-person account of his journey.
“How difficult could it be to spot something in the sea?” I asked myself as I sat on the red nylon webbed seat in a Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) C-130, buckling up as the plane prepared to take off from Paya Lebar Air Base.
I was there at the break of dawn on March 9 with 18 crew members from the RSAF 122 Squadron, who were setting out for a 10-hour mission to locate the missing Boeing 777 from Malaysia Airlines (MAS), which went missing in the South China Sea on March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The C-130 was one of two such military transport planes that were dispatched to help in the search for Flight MH370 on March 9, together with a naval helicopter, two warships and a submarine support and rescue vessel.
The mood was solemn, with hardly any words exchanged between the servicemen as they swiftly loaded equipment like smoke markers, inflatable rafts and prepared the 30m-long transportation plane for take-off.
Everyone was handed ear plugs and life jackets to be worn during the flight. “Put this on after take-off!” an aircrew member barked over the loud humming from the plane’s propellers.
I had come on board thinking that with a bird’s eye view of a suspected crash site, one would definitely be able to spot a floating debris that would somehow shed some light on the fate of MH370.
But I would later find out that the task is harder than it seems.
Although the search was concentrated that day in an area about 140 nautical miles north-east of Kota Bahru, Kelantan, in the South China Sea, the crew members in the cockpit went to work right from the start, keeping a lookout in the two hours or so it took for us to reach the South China Sea. The rest of the crew and I were seated with our backs facing the windows.
As we approached the search area, people sprang into action, removing the seat webbings blocking the small windows and taking up positions to get the clearest views. Some stood on seats to peer out of the windows on the higher parts of the plane.
The two emergency doors at the back of the C-130 were lifted up, allowing the crew who were hooked up with safety harnesses to stand perched right at the edge and have a clearer view right under the aircraft.
The majority of those on board strained their necks, their faces pressed against the basketball-sized windows of the aircraft, scanning the seas and horizon for any sign of debris. The two pilots in front were also on the lookout and the crew communicated using headsets, alerting one another to anything that caught their attention.
About 10 inflatable rafts were strapped near the rear exits, unpacked and ready to be thrown down should any survivors be spotted. If that happened, rescue teams on the waters would be alerted to pick up the survivors.
The vastness of the seas was overwhelming. The area of operation was enormous - many times the size of Singapore and the Malaysian Peninsular combined.
I was confident that with so many aircraft and ships from so many countries involved in the search, it would not be long before the ill-fated MH370 was found.
But it was not to be. My 10-hour journey with the RSAF showed me just how difficult an open-sea search-and-rescue operation really is.
We saw some vessels in the seas, but at about 500 feet (150m) up in the air, we were circling too high up to be able to tell whether they were search-and-rescue boats, or just traditional Vietnamese fishing boats. They often appeared no bigger than a speck in the sea of blue. Even the lone tankers cutting through the waters on the horizon were hard to spot.
The loud droning and constant vibrations from the jet engines began to take its toll on the servicemen, hours into the operation, as they took shifts to scan the waters. Some took a quick shut-eye, and other stepped in to fill the gap.
Many were visibly tired after a few hours of intense concentration. A servicemen was asked by his partner to take a break, but he waved him off, signing to him with his hands saying: "Later. Ten more minutes."
Some were seen clutching white vomit bags, apparently nauseous from the constant staring at moving objects and the circling of the plane.
The crew took turns to have lunch - cup noodles and biscuits. No one seemed to mind the simple meal as they wolfed it down and quickly headed back to their posts, seemingly aware of the urgency and importance of the responsibility on their shoulders.
After taking some pictures of the operations and the scene through the windows as I was not allowed near the open doors, I chipped in to help.
I found a window on the right side near the front of the plane and started to scan the seas. It required tremendous concentration and was extremely tiring. I felt exhausted and struggled to keep awake just after 30 minutes.
Smoke markers were thrown into the seas, at some points, to mark out suspected debris. The plane would then swing back to investigate the marked areas, but each time, it yielded no results.
About five hours after leaving the air base, we spotted large patches of oil, brown stains marbling through the pristine blue waters.
The aircrew also spotted and took photos of some unidentified pieces of debris bobbling in the waters, one of which resembled an orange life jacket.
There was momentary excitement on the plane about the discovery, but the Malaysian authorities would later in the evening clarify that the debris was not from MH370.
About eight hours after we took off, the plane turned back for Singapore and landed just in time for us to see the sun setting at the Paya Lebar Air Base at about 6pm.
I was eager to head back to the office, file my photographs and meet my family for our weekly get together meals. But my heart was heavy knowing that the loved ones of the missing 239 passengers and crew on MH370 would not be seeing them for dinner that night.