Missing MH370: Vessels 'no bigger than speck in sea of blue'

Missing MH370: Vessels 'no bigger than speck in sea of blue'

"How difficult could it be to spot something in the sea?" I thought to myself as I sat on the red nylon webbed seat in a Republic of Singapore Air Force (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 Sunday with 18 crew members from the RSAF 122 Squadron, who were setting out for a 10-hour mission to locate missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which went missing in the South China Sea on Saturday while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

As we approached the search area about 140 nautical miles north-east of Kota Baru, Kelantan, the crew sprang into action, removing the seat webbing blocking the small windows and taking up positions to get a clear view.

The two emergency doors at the back of the C-130 were lifted, allowing crew members who were hooked up with safety harnesses to stand perched right at the edge for a clearer view right under the aircraft. The vastness of the seas was overwhelming. My 10-hour journey with the RSAF showed me just how difficult an open sea search-and-rescue operation is.

We saw some vessels in the seas, but at about 500ft up in the air, we were circling too high 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.

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 into the flight, we spotted large patches of oil, brown stains marbling through the pristine blue waters, and pieces of debris, one of which resembled an orange life jacket. But the Malaysian authorities would clarify later that the debris was not from MH370.

About eight hours after we took off, the plane turned back for Singapore. I was in time to meet my family for dinner, but my heart was heavy knowing the loved ones of the 239 people on board MH370 would not be seeing them for dinner that night.

deslim@sph.com.sg

Read Desmond Lim's full account in The Big Story on straitstimes.com

The Straits Times' correspondents and photographers are out covering all aspects of the dramatic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Follow their round-the-clock reports in print as well as online at straitstimes.com

In Kuala Lumpur: Carolyn Hong, Lester Kong, Yong Yen Nie, Joyce Lim, Neo Xiaobin

In Beijing: Kor Kian Beng, Esther Teo, Rachel Chang

In Bangkok: Nirmal Ghosh

In Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam: Tan Hui Yee

In Singapore: Jermyn Chow, Derrick Ho, Ong Hwee Hwee, Ong Sor Fern, Grace Sung, Tan Chye Luan, Lin Zhaowei, Lyn Chan


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