OVER THE STRAITS OF MALACCA, MALAYSIA – Smoothing out his map, Captain 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 Malaysian 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 take-off. Its potential location now stretches worldwide, tasking navigators like Fareq in multiple nations.
Part of a seven-person crew, led by female pilot Major Farahdiba Ahmad Rostam, Fareq took off from a military air base in Kuala Lumpur Saturday to scour a 3,600 square nautical mile chunk of the northern Straits of Malacca, some 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 8 to 14 days at sea with food and water, and there was a case when people survived over 20 days."
"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 sergeant 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, know the plane's news from TV. "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.
Sergeant 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" MH370, the missing flight, 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 form their squadron and division mascots. 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, said Fareq. "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 Sergeant Faddinis, who, like his colleagues, declined to join the world of speculation about the possible fate of MH370. "We will search again tomorrow."