Singapore has searched a third of allocated area

Singapore has covered about a third of the area it was allocated in the search for the missing AirAsia Flight QZ8501, believed to be at the bottom of the Java Sea.

It sent two military transport aircraft yesterday with 24 volunteer scanners from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) to look for the plane, which vanished on Sunday morning with 162 passengers and crew members.

The volunteers are a mix of regulars and full-time national servicemen. The search team was aided by the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) Formidable-class frigate, RSS Supreme - its most advanced warship - and missile corvette, RSS Valour - a fast attack vessel with search capabilities - which arrived at the search area yesterday. A landing ship tank, RSS Persistence, sailed yesterday evening to join them.

Singapore has been given a search zone in the Java Sea of 60 nautical miles by 190 nautical miles, an area about 55 times larger than Singapore.

Both search-and-locate flights started from Paya Lebar Air Base - the first at about 6.30am and the second at about 12.40pm. Each mission covered about 15 per cent of the search area, and took about nine hours, including travelling time to the designated zones.

One of the C-130s had carried out a shorter search on Sunday evening in a different area not within Singapore's search zone.

Meant for transporting people and goods, it is used for searches, partly because it can last up to 10 hours on a full tank of fuel.

The dawn flight yesterday combed an area about 740km south-east of Singapore. The volunteers sat in awkward positions or stood to peer out of small windows just slightly bigger than two hands placed side by side. The task was monotonous, and the glassy ocean disorienting after a while, and glaring in sunlight.

The din of the moving aircraft meant they had to wear ear plugs. When a volunteer spotted something, he pulled on a white cord strung around the plane's interior to alert its air crew specialists.

The specialists stood at the plane's open doors to scan the sea. For safety, they were hooked to the plane, and the doorways had criss-crossing strap barriers to prevent them from falling out.

They dropped smoke-emitting, floating markers into the sea to mark spots with possible signs of the missing plane. The markers allowed the plane to circle closer to the spot so they could better identify the items in the sea.

All possible leads yesterday, however, turned out to be debris, and not aircraft parts.

Airforce engineer Calvin Tay, 31, from the 507 Squadron, who was volunteering for such a mission for the first time, said: "To help those in need is one of the core principles of the military... It was a little disappointing as we didn't get any answers and couldn't provide any closure to the family members."

Captain Jason Chai, 33, of the 122 Squadron, who was the first flight's pilot and had helped look for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which went missing earlier this year, said: "It was a good test of what we had gone through during our daily training."

The RSAF plans to fly two sorties today. Separately, Singapore is waiting for Indonesia's go-ahead to deploy the RSN's submarine support and rescue vessel, as well as two underwater locator beacon detector systems and four specialists from the Ministry of Transport's (MOT) Air Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB).

Each system comprises a hydrophone which is submerged and rotated 360 degrees under water, said AAIB's senior investigator Steven Teo. The hydrophone can "listen" for the pinging sounds emitted by the underwater locator beacon of the aircraft flight recorder, and allow specialists to triangulate its approximate location.

Yesterday afternoon, Singapore also offered the use of additional equipment, including a sidescan sonar system and a robotic remotely operated vehicle, and personnel from the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore.

AirAsia arranged for another 11 relatives of those on board the missing flight to fly to Indonesia yesterday, in addition to the 16 who had left on Sunday night.

Those who remain in Singapore are receiving regular updates and support from representatives of AirAsia, Changi Airport Group and MOT, and counsellors and care officers of the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

Additional reporting by Danson Cheong

This article was first published on Dec 30, 2014.
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