Friday, March 14, 2014

Search for Malaysia Airlines MH370: A look at RSAF C-130 flights callsigns Rescue 65 and Rescue 66

Mission ready: A C-130H from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) 122 Squadron is prepared for her long, 10-hour overwater flight at Apron Charlie, Paya Lebar Air Base, on 9 March 2014. Straits Times picture by Desmond Lim.

The following post is unique to Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) search and locate missions flown using C-130 Hercules aircraft with the callsigns Rescue 65 and Rescue 66. What is not unique are the challenges flying such long duration flights overwater, far from land, in all weather conditions. Men and women from 13 countries face much the same challenges in the unprecedented, multinational search for the 239 passengers and crew aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. The dedication and commitment to a common purpose of the SAR teams from all nations is praiseworthy.  

There are no signs that point to IGARI, the aeronautical waypoint that Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 is said to have passed before she vanished mysteriously last Saturday (8 Mar 2014).

Getting to the search areas near IGARI that Malaysia has assigned to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) involves flying some 700km from Paya Lebar Air Base in a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft configured for search and locate duty with observer stations, lift rafts and smoke markers. Once there, the Hercules would begin a meticulous aerial sweep of the sea at low level, orbiting the search boxes for hours on end.

Air Force men and women aboard two C-130s, callsigns Rescue 65 and Rescue 66, have been flying such missions this past week.

Rescue 65 and Rescue 66 start their work day
It's a tough way to earn one's pay. Even so, there's been no let up in the mission tempo. Every call to duty has been answered. All assigned flights have taken off as scheduled and returned to base safely.

From engine start to engine shutdown, each mission could easily stretch 10 hours - or more. Flying is just one part of the deal. The RSAF engineers and groundcrew from 122 "Condor" Squadron responsible for getting the two airlifters mission ready start their work day well before sun-up and will stand down hours after sunset.

It is arduous work. And we can be grateful for the Air Force's men and women who answered the call to action promptly and have been sustaining the effort every day since Saturday.

Working in concert with colleagues from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Team RSAF has been planning, supporting and flying search and locate flights last Saturday, when 122 SQN was activated for the search. The squadron sent one C-130 aloft from around noon that day to help Malaysia.

Acknowledging a Malaysian request for more assets, Singapore raised the number of C-130s assigned for the aerial search to two aircraft. This afternoon, the RSAF despatched an additional SAL aircraft to the Malaysian-led search. A Fokker 50 Mark 2S Enforcer from 121 "Brahminy Kite" Squadron will be forward deployed at Butterworth for search duty in the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea.

Eyes in the sky: Observers aboard an RSAF C-130 search and locate flight scan the surface of the South China Sea as part of a multinational search led by Malaysia for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Straits Times picture by Desmond Lim.

C-130 Project Hxxx upgrade shows its worth
Looking out of the front office of Rescue 65 as the C-130 overflies the South China Sea after dawn, one sees shimmering waters heaving under a gentle swell. The vista is stunningly beautiful with a deep sea blue from horizon to horizon. It is a featureless seascape; unmarked but not uncharted.

What one sees as featureless sea, the flight management system of Rescue 65 charts as airways and waypoints. Names alien to laypersons but familiar to aviators - names like AKOMA, BITOD, ENREP and IGARI - chart invisible waypoints over an otherwise featureless sea that guide aviators along airways in the sky.

The upgraded cockpit is a result of the RSAF's C-130 upgrade, now underway as Project Hxxx, that helps reduce the flight crew's workload with better cockpit displays, upgraded autopilot and weather radar displays, among other refinements.

On upgraded C-130s, the job of navigating the aircraft is aided by a flight management system that speeds up calculations and presents the flight path clearly. This gives the pilots extra bandwidth to concentrate on achieving their mission without getting overly bogged down flying the plane to its objective.

Not everything has been changed in the name of upgrading. The circuit breaker board on the right side of the cockpit retains its 1970s charm with a bewildering mass (to outsiders) of switches and dials. The cockpit display panel also has a fair number of old-style dials, affectionately called steam gauges, that have been retained because they do the job well even as flat screen displays lend a modern touch to the cockpit of the RSAF's upgraded C-130s.

The upgrade hasn't put C-130 navigators out of a job. Rescue 65 and Rescue 66 each have one onboard and the navigators are kept busy supporting the mission even as the aircraft are guided en route by GPS.

Once in their respective search boxes, the pilot-in-command runs the show as he or she sees fit. A ladder search is usually done. This search pattern is named after the flight path of the search aircraft because the track it traces as it flies several nautical miles left and right during its advance on a certain compass bearing results in a flight path looking like the rungs of a ladder.

Flying out of sight of the nearest landfall, the glaring sun bakes Rescue 65 as the minutes tick by... slowly. This is going to be a l-o-n-g 10 hours. But the crew is thankful for the clear weather and calm sea as they much prefer it to darting about in low clouds and rain over an agitated sea.

As the full-time National Servicemen who volunteered to join Rescue 65 soon discover, staring out at the expansive ocean is hard on one's eyes. On commercial airliners, passengers can choose to pull down the window shades as the glare can be harsh and blinding. On Rescue 65, the observers have no such luxury. And so they scour the surface of the sea, looking out for signs of the MAS airliner in shifts that last around 20 minutes each. The observers do so amid the unrelenting din from the four Rolls Royce turboprops whose whistle-like buzz will produce the constant droning, the deafening, irritating background noise and energy-sapping vibrations throughout their journey that no ear defenders or ear plugs have ever shut out successfully.

Capable of airlifting some 42,000 pounds of cargo, Rescue 65 is considered relatively light with the flight crew of five and less than 10 observers/scanners in the main cabin. The C-130 proves surprisingly agile when her pilots coax the aircraft into a sharp bank like a fighter plane while orbiting a contact of interest - a floating piece of debris that the observers photograph with determined persistence.

People who need a quiet environment to work need not apply. Rescue 65 and Rescue 66 are certainly not the place for desk-bound office types.

Call to action
Rescue 65 and Rescue 66 leave PLAB before dawn to maximise their time in the search box during daylight.

As dawn breaks over Singapore, the C-130s are already well on their way towards the South China Sea. Over the  past week, Rescue 65 and Rescue 66 were hard at work in their search boxes throughout daylight hours in Singapore, toiling out of sight of Singaporeans alongside multinational search teams. Enjoyed your lunch break? Lunch for SAL crews is simple finger food or whatever you can balance gingerly on your knees, wolfed down as the engines drone on. Toilet breaks are done in the main cabin behind a modesty screen.

By the time Rescue 65 and Rescue 66 see Singapore again, the evening rush hour is just tapering off and most of Singapore is winding down another day.

For 122 Squadron, having the aircraft on ground presents RSAF engineers and groundcrew the opportunity to turnaround the C-130s.

Under the glare of floodlights at Apron Charlie, they will carry out maintenance checks and refuel the thirsty aircraft. The work will continue overnight before the launch cycle starts in the wee hours of a fresh work day when 122 SQN will report to HQ RSAF: Rescue 65 and Rescue 66 ready for duty.

And then it begins.... all over again (",)7  *salutes*

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

what an awkward standing position it is to be lookng out frm a c130 from the side windows, must be awfully uncomfortable.

kudos to all SAR personnel