PERTH, Australia – Every day from the Perth airport and a nearby military base, about a dozen planes from several countries take flight to search for debris from missing Flight 370 — so far without success. The U.S. Defense Department alone committed $7.3 million to the effort in the first month of the search, much of it spent on two U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon planes that cost $4,000 per hour to fly.
Lt. Cmdr. Adam Schantz is the officer in charge of the 32 air and ground crew manning the surveillance aircraft, which are modified Boeing 737s. This is an edited version of the interview:
Q: What does a typical day involve?
A: The maintenance crew have to come in very early in the morning, well before the sun comes up, to prep the airplane for the day's flight. Our typical mission is about nine hours. We fly anywhere between 900 miles and 1,500 miles to the search zone and spend about five hours out there searching. The air crew are often working 15-hour days and the maintenance crew sometimes even more. So we are putting in really long hours, but doing well, and our crew and maintainers are motivated, and proud to be here. We haven't missed a mission yet.
Q: How do you conduct the search?
A: So the P-8 has a very advanced set of sensors, from radar to a series of cameras, both electro-optical and infrared, that allows us to search the ocean in different ways. And, in addition to that, we have our trained observers in the windows, monitoring the ocean with binoculars and just their eyes. It's the needle in the haystack that we are looking for. It's a massive amount of area. I don't think anybody's ever really taken on a search of this much area before to find such a small target.
Q: What are you seeing?
A: It's incredibly monotonous out there searching. That's one of the reasons I'm so proud of our aircrew, and how well they're doing, because it takes a lot of concentration to keep paying attention when hundreds and hundreds of miles of ocean are passing by.
We've found a collection of fishing nets, fishing equipment. It's just garbage.
Q: Is that discouraging?
A: Absolutely not. When we go to search an area, if we don't find anything, then we are able to eliminate that area from any additional searching and move on to the next one. So it gives a good way to be able to concentrate our search assets on new areas.
Q: How low do you fly when the visibility is bad?
A: At times we go down to 200 feet.
Q: Two hundred feet in a 737? Isn't that a bit crazy?
A: Maybe not crazy, but different. I don't know that anybody else has operated 737s in this manner. But it's an excellent airplane, and it handles the mission very well. And it's a standard part of our mission, particularly in the defense role. So we are practiced at it, and it's not an issue for our aircrews to go down that low.
Q: Did you ever think you'd be working alongside, say, crews from China?
A: I did not. But the Chinese are great. It's a very unique opportunity for countries to come together. We're all united in the same goal.
Q: What would it mean to you to find some wreckage from Flight 370?
A: I think, beyond myself, it would mean closure for the families of these 239 victims. For every person who has gone missing on this plane, that's somebody's father, brother, mother, son, daughter, friend or sister. So there's a lot of relationships out there beyond the people who are missing. There's a lot of other people affected by this tragedy.