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Marshalling forces in the search for MH370

Date

Anne Davies

RAAF pilot Flight Lieutenant Russell Adams flies his AP-3C Orion over the Southern Indian Ocean.

RAAF pilot Flight Lieutenant Russell Adams flies his AP-3C Orion over the Southern Indian Ocean. Photo: AFP

A combination of low-flying aircraft and merchant vessels are now scouring some of the most inhospitable seas in the world in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

There are four P-3 Orion aircraft operating in the search areas in the Southern Indian Ocean 2500 kilometres south-west of Perth: three from Australia and one from New Zealand. These workhorse aircraft, which can fly between 100 and 200 metres above the water, are designed specifically for search and surveillance, and for detecting submarines.

Each plane is equipped with multi-mode radar, which can switch from a wide beam capable of covering a large area, to a more focused area to provide higher resolution images. On board are six analysts constantly reviewing the images gathered by the planes, as well as providing visual surveillance.

The aircraft also have infrared and acoustic sensors, which could potentially pick up the ping from the plane's black box flight recorder. But it is likely they would need to be virtually overhead to hear the pings, said Dr Andrew Davies, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Bolstering the search is a P-8 Poseidon aircraft from the United States. The more modern jet aircraft is based on the Boeing 737 airframe, which is capable of searching for up to nine hours. US journalists on board said their mobile phones and cameras were confiscated for the flight because of the top secret nature of the surveillance gear on board.

Seventh Fleet spokesman Commander William J. Marks told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that the plane has a maximum speed of 490 knots and can climb as high as 41,000 feet. But in this search the aircraft would be fly far lower and slower - at a height of 5000 to 10,000 feet and at 350 knots - giving it a search time of up to nine hours. That would provide the P-8 with a range of 1200 nautical miles, 300 miles further than the P-3, Commander Marks said.

The first Orion in the area dropped buoys that will enable the planes to collect data on the currents in the area. The satellite pictures are already a week old, so understanding the effects of currents will be vital.

Assisting the search are two Chinese aircraft and two Japanese aircraft, which were due to arrive in Perth on Sunday. Also in the search areas is the MV Hoegh St Petersburg, a Norwegian car carrier that was marsalled was en route to Melbourne. Its radar and powerful lights will enable it to search at night.

It is expected to be joined by other merchant vessels over the next few days, including Chinese icebreaker the Snow Dragon, which was recently involved in rescuing a ship carrying Australian passengers in the Antarctic.

Any retrieval of debris will involve the HMAS Success, the largest ship built in Australia for the Royal Australian Navy, which was due to arrive at the search area late Saturday afternoon. Designed as a refuelling and resupply ship, the HMAS Success has no particular search capabilities but is able to remain at sea for long periods and is equipped with four cranes that are used to transfer solid cargo to other vessels. The cranes are capable of lifting nearly two tonnes. The ship is also equipped with a helicopter that is used for transferring cargo to other ships.

Two ultra-long-range commercial jets, carrying State Emergency Service volunteers, and a RAAF P3 Orion were expected to be the first planes to depart Perth on Saturday.

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