OVER THE STRAIT OF MALACCA, MALAYSIA â€” Smoothing out his map, Capt. Fareq Bin Hassan, a Royal Malaysian Air Force navigator, explained the target areas for his search and rescue flight Saturday. “Sections Alpha, Charlie and Delta,” A, C and D, he shouted above the engines’ roar.
The official search for a missing Malaysia Airlines passenger plane began last Saturday, with huge sections of sea near Malaysia marked A to D. The already vast area then expanded, adding E to H by Thursday, and on to K by Saturday. “But it could go all the way to Z,” or Zulu, said Fareq, 36.
As authorities run out of letters, airmen like Fareq are going to need much bigger maps. Aboard his Indonesian-made CN-235 plane Saturday, Fareq worried that currents and wind could send plane debris drifting far into the Indian Ocean. Game-changing news awaited his return to base. Forget debris this close to home: The plane may have flown on for many hours after its last civilian radar contact.
Prime Minister Najib Razak told a press conference Saturday that communications on the plane had been deliberately disabled, and the last known signal it gave came over seven hours after takeoff. Its potential location now stretches worldwide, tasking navigators like Fareq in multiple nations.
Part of a seven-person crew, led by female pilot Maj. Farahdiba Ahmad Rostam, Fareq took off from a military air base in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to scour a 3,600-square-nautical-mile chunk of the northern Strait of Malacca, about 90 miles northwest of Penang, a popular tourist area in Malaysia.
Their shift forms part of a 14-nation operation comprising over 100 ships and planes. Fareq was on his sixth straight day of searching the seas. “As more time goes by, the chances are getting slimmer and slimmer, but there’s still a chance,” he said. “People can survive more than eight to 14 days at sea with food and water, and there was a case when people survived over 20 days.”
At the target area, which it crisscrosses in a “ladder search,” the plane descends to 500 feet for a better if more perilous view. Sgt. Faddinis Beritis, 30, stares out at an empty expanse of sea, where cresting low waves, called white caps, trick the eye into resembling white debris.
“It’s possible they are still alive, so all of us hope and pray we can find them,” said Faddinis, who must rely only on his eyes, tested annually so he can serve in search-and-rescue missions, and a pair of binoculars. “If we had better equipment, it would be more helpful,” he admitted, but said he is inspired by his part in a 2010 rescue of over 10 people from a sinking vessel.
Flight Sgt. Kamarulzaman Bin Jainai, 34, has attended 11 search-and-rescue missions in the past three years, without a single success. “I hope this time can be different. I want to take all the passengers and crew safely back to their families,” he said. His own boys, 6 and 8 years old, have seen the TV coverage about the missing plane. “They tell me ‘find the plane, Daddy’. And they worry about me more than before. Every day they say ‘I love you, you must take care,’ ” he said.
Sgt. Nor Sarifah Ahmad, 30, an air force stewardess, has loved planes since she was a girl, she said. Wearing an Islamic headscarf, like the pilot, Nor said she didn’t feel tired, despite the monotony of the view and search. “I must try hard to look, for the sake of everyone on board” Flight 370, she said.
Frustration is common, said navigator Fareq, often caused by the white polystyrene boxes that fishermen use to mark their submerged nets. Oil slicks can be spotted from afar, but usually come from ships, he said. The crew must be as eagle-eyed as the birds of prey that serve as mascots for their squadron and division. On their arm badge, the No. 1 Squadron bird grips a Malay sword to represent defense and holds a leaf in its mouth to help others, Fareq said. “This is a ‘leaf trip,’ most of the time we do trips like this,” he said.
The day’s sole drama came with fumes from the cockpit, a possible electrical shortage that forced a return home after four hours, earlier than scheduled. “I’m disappointed we found nothing, but we won’t give up,” said Sgt. Faddinis, who, like his colleagues, declined to join the world of speculation about the possible fate of Flight 370. “We will search again tomorrow.”
Students pray for the passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 during a class at an elementary school in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia.