PERTH, Australia – After more than four hours flying over the vast, featureless Indian Ocean, the quick-fire banter of a New Zealand crew searching for signs of Flight 370 turns philosophical.
"One of my biggest phobias," says one of the crew over the headset communication system, "is treading water in the middle of the ocean."
There's a pause after that, then a lively discussion about how long it's possible to survive at sea.
The air force crew, who fly a P-3 Orion turboprop, have been searching for over a week now as part of an international effort to unravel the mystery of the Malaysia Airlines plane that vanished four weeks ago. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Thursday described it as the most difficult search operation ever.
The 12 New Zealanders have the discipline and teamwork that comes with military life, not to mention a slogan: "ready, resilient, respected." But they also have a kind of folksiness borne of being a small squadron in a tiny air force.
They've developed a reputation around Pearce, the base near Perth where the search planes fly from, as being fun, relaxed and responsible for serving up terrific inflight food. That includes freshly roasted meat and sandwiches they toast in two frying pans.
The Orion is nearly 50 years old, although it has been updated many times. Still, it's nothing like a passenger plane and is filled with rattles and a constant noise that make the headsets necessary.
Their mission can be frustrating at times. The crew doesn't know exactly what they are looking for, or where they might find it. Most days they've spotted objects out in the blue expanse, but so far they've turned out to be nothing more than tangled fishing nets or other ocean junk.
"This is the reality of search and rescue and we are used to it," Flight Lt. Stephen Graham, the tactical coordinator, said Friday. "You just search and search and search. The only way to do it is to start at the most likely place and go from there."
While there are high-tech cameras on board, it's the crew's eyes that are most useful in scanning the horizon. Peering out the windows of the plane, they flick their eyes from whitecap to whitecap and regularly change positions to keep alert. They also continue the headset banter:
"What do you call eye muscles?" asks one.
"Ocular," comes the response.
"My ocular muscles are getting a real workout."
"It's a matter of resilience," someone else chimes in, echoing their slogan.
"I'll keep looking till my eyes fall out," comes the response.
The banter evaporates when one of the crew spots a green object floating just below the surface. It's similar in size to a surfboard. Others spot more green objects, perhaps a half dozen in all. But as the plane doubles back again and again, circling for 40 minutes, the objects prove maddeningly elusive.
Finally, Sgt. Sean Donaldson is able to get a photo of one of the objects out of a window that's specially designed to produce undistorted images. Then he fires from the plane a canister that belches smoke.
As the plane takes another pass, tracking the smoke, two crew members latch themselves to the interior of the plane. They pull open the port door and throw a marker buoy overboard, shutting the door tight again in a well-rehearsed maneuver. The idea is that a ship can later use the buoy to locate and identify the object.
The crew look at the photos on a monitor. Probably nothing more than a fishing net, says Donaldson, though it will be up to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the search, to determine that for sure.
"I guess it's getting a little frustrating, although we are getting regular updates of information from AMSA," said Flight Lt. Pete Jackson. "And I suppose that gives me renewed confidence there's something in this new area to find."
The intense mood lightens as the plane begins its three-hour return trip to Pearce, the search over for another day. There are hot meals, stretching, more banter. It's a long day — anywhere from 14 to 18 hours after the preflight and post flight rituals are complete.
"You think about a lot of things when you're on a five-hour visual search," says Wing Cmdr. Rob Shearer, the captain. "Inevitably, your mind does go back to how what you are doing affects the families. It's moved from the imperative of saving lives initially to now the imperative of finding something so that we can solve the mystery and provide closure to these families and the rest of the people who are interested in this mystery."
After Shearer lands the plane, he taxis through something similar to a giant car wash. They call it the birdbath. Jets of water blast the underside, cleansing it of the salty spray of the Indian Ocean.