Malaysian Pilots Over Andaman Sea Keep Hope as Search Widens

Flying at 2,000 feet above sea level as dawn broke over the Andaman Sea, Malaysian Sergeant Mohd Zulhelmi Hasam opened the door of a Hercules C-130, pushed it out of the way and slid in another with windows.

Another sergeant on the opposite side of the plane did the same, and the two men settled in for a two hour and 40 minute-shift scouring the ocean below for clues to the fate of Flight 370, the Malaysian airliner that vanished last week en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

The C-130 yesterday covered 180 square nautical miles west of Peninsular Malaysia, part of an area that was getting more scrutiny following reports that the plane had suddenly veered west from its northbound path over the South China Sea. India’s navy set up a new search zone in the Andaman Sea, hundreds of miles off the course of Flight 370, as evidence mounted that the plane kept flying after controllers lost contact.

With no evidence of a mechanical failure or pilot error, U.S. investigators are treating the disappearance as a case of air piracy, though it remains unclear by whom, a person familiar with the data said.

“I try not to think about the possibilities of a hijack, or the many theories on the mysterious disappearance, even those with supernatural explanations,” said Zulhelmi, 30, in an interview on the search plane. “If we allow ourselves to listen to all these things, morale tends to get down. It’s important that this assignment is accomplished.”

Malaysia is leading the international search operation that has involved at least 45 ships, 41 planes and nine helicopters from more than a dozen countries.

False Leads

With rumors, false leads and sometimes wild speculation swirling about what happened to the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane, the Air Force team aboard the Hercules prefers to focus on the task of locating any sign of the vehicle.

“We won’t give up hope so easily,” said Zulhelmi, dressed in a khaki jumpsuit and using binoculars to zoom in on any objects or debris visible on the ocean surface. “It’s not easy though, it’s a really wide area.”

Today’s search team departed in darkness at 5 a.m. from the Royal Malaysian Air Force base in Subang, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) away from the capital Kuala Lumpur. Flying northwest to an area labeled as sector E, west of Phuket, the C-130 descended from its initial altitude of 18,000 feet about two hours after takeoff to fly low enough for the observers to do their job.

Traveling at a speed of 150 knots (173 miles per hour), Zulhelmi and Sergeant Zulfamy Sulaiman sat with their backs to each other and trained their eyes on the waters below them.

‘Mentally Strong’

“It’s hard work, you have to be mentally strong to do it,” said Zulfamy, 34, who has been with the Air Force for 11 years. Sometimes he develops a headache after two hours of close monitoring, he said.

Zulhelmi put binoculars to his eyes every time something caught his eye, a ship or a piece of driftwood. He found no sign of the missing Boeing Co. 777-200 this time. Even so, he took several photographs on his Nikon camera.

Today’s mission followed a so-called “ladder search,” where the pilots select a point, and then move 15 nautical miles across, then 10 nautical miles down, then 15 nautical miles back across, creating a fight pattern similar to a ladder, said co-pilot Captain Mohd Syamsul Mohd Yusof.

While areas along Malaysia’s west coast have been shrouded in haze these past two weeks, Syamsul, who’s been on search duty since the first day, said visibility was good today, with the ability to see as far as 10 nautical miles.

Suspicious Objects

If something suspicious is spotted, the observers alert the pilots and request that they turn back to get closer, Zulfamy said. If they decide an object or debris needs further inspection, the coordinates are transmitted to the closest navy or search and rescue ships in the area, he said.

Six Air Force personnel manned the plane: pilot, co-pilot, a flight engineer, navigator and two observers.

Missions flown for the past several days have lasted between six and eight hours, including flying to and from the search area, said Zulhelmi. Officers are not allowed to work more than that so they can get enough rest, he said.

“As long as we can’t find anything, we will continue with this search and rescue operation,” Zulhelmi said. “It’s our duty to return the passengers to their families.”

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