Always room for a bite and banter on a serious mission

Thailand correspondent Tan Hui Yee in the cockpit of the Royal New Zealand Air Force P3K3 Orion as it flies over the Indian Ocean in search of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 31, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Thailand correspondent Tan Hui Yee in the cockpit of the Royal New Zealand Air Force P3K3 Orion as it flies over the Indian Ocean in search of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 31, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

For the past few weeks, the reporters who have descended upon the Royal Australian Air Force Base Pearce north of Perth have asked mostly two questions: "Did they find something?" and " Can I get on a search plane?"

Such is the media frenzy around the four-week-old hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, which disappeared on March 8 on the way to Beijing with 239 people on board, It is believed to have veered way off course and eventually crashed into the southern Indian Ocean.

Australia, United States, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and China have all contributed a range of aircraft for the massive search currently spanning more than 200,000 sq km, though media access on aircraft launching from Pearce appeared initially to be granted just to Australian or major news organisations. The other journalists were reduced to long, hot, and uncertain waits in their cars or tents at a corner of the base as day after day of search yielded no breakthrough.

My luck turned after a week of waiting, as the sweltering summer suddenly gave way to autumn. It was the New Zealand Air Force which offered The Straits Times a berth on their 10-hour sortie on their P3K2 Orion. By then, journalists at Pearce were swopping horror stories about how neither food nor water was available on some rides.

An Asian colleague, upon hearing about my impending trip, said: "Remember to bring water and food!"

As it turned out, I need not have worried. Soon after the plane took off, an officer offered me a carton of milk. Another came by with a pen and piece of cardboard taking orders for toasted ham and pineapple sandwiches.

The turboprop P3K2 Orion is built for long haul flights needed for the kind of maritime patrol conducted by the New Zealand air force's Number 5 Squadron. This Auckland-based team spends most of its time searching for stranded boatmen, or catching illegal fishing trawlers in the act.

The plane can fly from New Zealand to Hawaii. It can also last the roughly six-hour transit between Pearce to the MH370 search site, with enough fuel to spare for another three hours of search.

Food is a big part of the flight. "A lot of us cook," says the bright-eyed tactical coordinator Stephen Graham. "Because when we just fly a transit there's very little to do. So everyone's down the back cooking."

The crew are familiar with the delicacies of Southeast Asia, having explored the eateries of Penang and Singapore during joint military exercises under the Five Power Defence Agreement.

"I love the curry and roti. I love the chilli crab. I love the noodle… I love it all," says Flight Lieutenant Graham.

Food turned to be my undoing on the flight, as the plane descended from cruising altitude above the clouds to just 100m above the ocean to begin a meticulous search for debris that may be linked to MH370.

I struggled to keep my breakfast down, shuffling uneasily around the plane. By this time, the crew had spotted a suspicious object in the ocean, and the plane began circling around to deploy a smoke buoy to mark the spot. My gut churned. Bracing for the inevitable, I locked myself in the toilet, only to be confronted by a sign asking me to vomit in a sick bag rather than the toilet bowl.

As luck would have it, I had two in my back pocket.

Outside, the crew were busy scanning their radar readings and live camera for suspicious objects in the ocean. A mixture of Japanese- and Malaysian-accented English could be heard on the radio system as planes from other countries came within greeting distance from each other. I sank onto the floor as they plane did another turn to get a closer look at a second suspicious object, a cluster of circular shapes which looked like lights.

In the brief spaces when nothing turns up in the search, the radio filled with chatter of another sort.

"These could be albatross-like birds. They usually don't need much land."

"Does it have a good barbecue area?"

Then, just as quickly, the chatter was peppered with aviation codes as the men spotted and assessed another object.

There was easy camaraderie as the 13 men on board took turns to pass each other biscuits, Coke and trays of instant chicken chow mien.

This is a job which requires intense concentration. On other missions, lives are at stake. In the hunt for MH370, the crew are driven in their goal to bring closure to the relatives of the 239 missing people, who have yet to see physical evidence of a crash.

Aircraft captain Rob Shearer let on that each sortie in search of MH370 lasts two hours longer than the team's usual South Pacific patrols.

How do the men cope, I asked.

"We drink a lot of coffee. We get more rest when we can," he said. And, despite the gravity of their missions, "humour is a big component of what we do".

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