VIDEO

Outback-style 'media centre' set up at Australian air base

THE cars slow down at this spot on Western Australia's Great Northern Highway and drivers blast their horns before speeding off. A passing pedestrian wanders up and hollers across the chain link fence: Have they found the plane yet?

The Royal Australian Air Force's Base Pearce 35km north of Perth doesn't normally get more attention than the vineyards in the vicinity. These days, it is gracing headlines as the world grapples with its biggest aviation mystery yet: What happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370?

An assortment of search planes from countries like China, Japan, United States and New Zealand have joined the Australian fleet here, from where they fly to the remote southern Indian Ocean to scan for debris. Data suggest that the Boeing 777-200 had gone down in this desolate part of the vast Indian Ocean hours after disappearing from radar screens on the morning of March 8.

The patch of grass just by the entrance of the base is a sea of cars, tents, generators, satellite dishes and even campervans as journalists around the world wait for news of debris sighting from the pilots fresh off their 10-hour flights.

The Australian military has tried to accommodate the journalists by placing mobile toilets and trash bins near this outback-style "media centre". Military personnel helpfully hand out ear plugs to the journalists during the latter's twice daily excursions onto the airfield. But uniformed officers stand watch at the perimeter of the media area with German shepherds, ready to round up any straying journalist.

"We understand you need to get stories," says Mr Gary Booth, a defence department spokesman now a frequent face at the campsite. But he admits he is slightly overwhelmed despite his 15 years on the job. "I've done events but they are all very minuscule compared to this."

In the early days of the hunt for the missing plane, global media descended upon Phu Quoc island off southern Vietnam, near the point the plane lost civilian radar contact. There, a parade of high-ranking officials delivered twice daily briefings on the aerial search. But as the days wore on without result - and stories about the flight's route diversion leaked out - Vietnamese officials complained to the media about not getting updated information from their Malaysian counterparts.

There has been no outburst like that yet from Australia as the hunt for flight MH370 effectively moves down south.

Mr Masahiko Kobayashi, the leader of the disaster relief team of Japan, which is contributing 44 crew members and two P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft to the search, noted how smooth the coordination of this latest stage of the search has been. His team, which also contributed to earlier search operating out of Malaysia, had to liaise with Malaysia's rescue coordination centre and Subang air base.

"Here, we only needed to deal with the Australian air force. It's easier," he said.

Since the media frenzy in Perth began last week, the Australian military has been letting journalists near the runway for brief spurts of time to speak to weary aircrew at the end of their gruelling missions.

Each time, the pilots said they found nothing, but would continue searching.

That was until Monday evening, when journalists assembled at the airfield to film an Australian P-3 Orion landing and hear what they thought would be another pat-on-the-back statement were suddenly told that the interview was cancelled.

They trudged back to their campsite, only to find out later that it was the crew of this particular plane that had spotted some floating objects possibly related to the missing aircraft. The news had come after the Chinese search party had spotted some suspicious flotsam in the area around 2,500 km south-west from Perth and was to be followed later that night by an announcement by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak that satellite data showed the plane most probably went down in the southern Indian Ocean.

Dangerous weather forced the Australian Maritime Safety Authority coordinating the search to suspend air and sea searches on Tuesday, but the media campsite at Pearce remained packed to the brim. There was no let-up in the buzz as Australian Defence Minister David Johnston and vice-chief of defence forces Mark Binskin dropped in. The latter warned of the long and hard search ahead for the missing plane: "We are not searching for a needle in a haystack, we are still trying to define where the haystack is."

As the relatives of the victims of flight MH370 prepare to head to Australia, the camp at Pearce looks set to grow.

tanhy@sph.com.sg