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Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: RAAF narrows search field as hunt for MH370 continues

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MH370: bad weather hampers search

Poor visibility foils the search for possible debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight in southern Indian Ocean.

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Fairfax Media journalist Liam Ducey was on board an RAAF Hercules aircraft as it scoured a stretch of ocean off Australia’s west coast. Here he writes of the ongoing search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

A loud hiss from hydraulics could be heard as the cargo bay on the Hercules C-130J plane swung open, exposing a massive expanse of ocean thousands of kilometres off the West Australian coast.

Narrowing the search area ... Loadmasters Sergeant Adam Roberts (left) and Flight Sergeant John Mancey prepare to launch a water-activated buoy from the Hercules C-130J.

Narrowing the search area ... Loadmasters Sergeant Adam Roberts (left) and Flight Sergeant John Mancey prepare to launch a water-activated buoy from the Hercules C-130J. Photo: Liam Ducey

After nearly two weeks of searching, this was the patch of the Indian Ocean where an Australian-led search team believed the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could have ended up, after veering off course and vanishing from radar screens on March 8.

On board the Hercules, from the 37th squadron based at RAAF Base Richmond, loadmasters Flight Sergeant John Mancey and Sergeant Adam Roberts were stone-faced as they donned flight suits and helmets and secured their harnesses to the cargo bay door during the mission on Thursday afternoon.

At this point in time, they had no idea that, on the other side of Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott had risen at the start of question time and announced that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) had had an apparent breakthrough, with satellite images showing two large objects in waters off Perth.

Loadmasters Sergeant Adam Roberts (left) and Flight Sergeant John Mancey launch one of two water-activated buoys from the Hercules C-130J.

Loadmasters Sergeant Adam Roberts (left) and Flight Sergeant John Mancey launch one of two water-activated buoys from the Hercules C-130J. Photo: Liam Ducey

The objective of the Hercules’ ten-hour round trip had been to drop two self-locating data marker buoys on the outskirts of the search area.

At 11am that day, the Hercules had set off from Pearce RAAF base in Bullsbrook, on the outskirts of Perth, bound for a patch of the Indian Ocean 1500 nautical miles off the coast.

The region is so far from the West Australian coast that the Hercules, cruising at a speed just under 600km/h, took five and a half hours to reach the search area, carrying its crew of six, as well as several journalists.

The water-activated buoys send a GPS and iridium satellite feed to AMSA, measuring drift, currents and water temperature to narrow the search field, which was roughly the size of New South Wales.

Flight Lieutenant Conan Brett and co-pilot Flight Officer Sam Dudman slowed the 79-tonne aircraft to just 252km/h, dropping altitude to just 2438 metres above sea level.

The door swung open and Flight Sergeant Mancey and Sergeant Roberts were exposed to the elements as they removed one buoy and launched it from the rear of the plane.

The process was repeated less than ten minutes later.

The buoys deployed by the Hercules, combined with buoys released at the same time by a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion, are expected to focus AMSA's search capabilities.

As the Hercules returned to RAAF Base Pearse, the crew learned that a satellite had picked up two objects, possibly wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, to the south of where the buoys had just been deployed.

The cutting-edge US P-8 Poseiden, as well as an RAAF P-3 Orion, were unable to detect the objects with AMSA tweeting that cloud and rain had limited visibility.

RAAF P3 crew unable to locate debris. Cloud & rain limited visbility. Further aircraft to continue search for #MH370

However, clear conditions are expected on Friday, with planes scheduled to leave at first light to continue the search.

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