Wednesday, December 31, 2014

No distance too far: The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) search operation for AirAsia Flight QZ8501

As Singaporeans settled down to enjoy the last Sunday of 2014, Lieutenant Teenesh Chandra, 26, rushed to Lebar Air Base from his family home. Duty called. There was a urgent mission to fly. Air Asia Flight QZ8501, en route from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore with 162 souls on board, was reported missing early that morning.

Singapore's offer to assist Indonesia in its search for the missing airline turned a quiet Sunday into buzz of activity for the dozens of Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) personnel who were mobilised for the search operation.

Maps and weather charts for the Java Sea were consulted. Aircraft were fuelled and made ready for flight. RSAF aircrew and groundcrew stood at instant readiness to fly. 

After that burst of activity, then came the wait.

The order to launch came some four hours later after Indonesian authorities accepted Singapore's Sunday morning offer to join search parties.

Destination: Java Sea 
Mobilised in the morning to standby to fly, C-130B 724, an upgraded Hercules tactical airlifter from the RSAF's 122 Squadron, was wheels up by around 5pm from Paya Lebar Air Base. The Hercules took off from Runway 02, banked left towards Pandan Reservoir, then turned southbound over the Singapore Strait. Dark clouds, heavy with rain, screened 724's departure from Singapore as she dashed for the Java Sea on her mercy mission.

Mercy mission: This graphic, published by The Straits Times on Tuesday 30 December 2014, shows search boxes assigned to Singapore on Day 1 of the search. Indonesian authorities have since redrawn the search areas into some 13 boxes. The distance the RSAF has to fly to reach the assigned search area is clear. 

Since Day 1 of the search for AirAsia QZ8501, Singapore has been assigned the southernmost search boxes, some 700km away from Singapore, by Indonesian authorities. The search area is about 50 times the size of Singapore. To search effectively means scouring the sea at low level. This meant that each aircraft can cover only about 15% of the search box during the nine hours of flying because the search has to be meticulous.

To put it another way, the search box for the RSAF is closer to Surabaya than it is to Singapore.

As a contributor to what would evolve as a multi-nation Search and Locate operation, our Air Force carried out its mission with quiet determination. RSAF personnel were united by a common resolve to find the missing AirAsia airliner, her passengers and crew, and to do so as quickly and expeditiously as possible.

Military Expert 1 (ME1) Vernon Goh, an RSAF Engineer from 817 Squadron, was among those who stepped forward to volunteer for the search mission. He was one of the 12 "scanners" who flew onboard an RSAF C-130 Hercules during the Search and Locate operation. In an RSAF Facebook post, ME1 Vernon said:"We took turns at the windows for about one hour each time, because the windows were high and we had to stand to look through it. We did this for about six hours, hoping that we could find something to help the families of those on board AirAsia QZ8501. It was tough as we were just looking at the endless waters, but we endured because it was important to us."

No distance too far
Assigning the RSAF search boxes farthest from Singapore meant that our C130 had to fly a longer distance to reach the area of operations. As more fuel is used, this means ithe search aircraft's time on station is shorter - even with long-range fuel tanks under each wing. 

Althought a Hercules can stay aloft for more than half a day, something has got to give when the aircraft has to fly farther to reach its area of operations. In this case, it was time spent performing the actual search. 

But Indonesian authorities must have had good reason how foreign search assets such as ships and planes are assigned. This is because when lives are at stake during a mercy mission, politiking and bureaucratic roadblocks must give way to good sense, expediency and a sense of urgency. Indonesian assets could also have been at work in search boxes closer to Singapore and changing gears midway during the operation may be more complicated than it appears.

Missions such as this are done under intense public and media scrutiny. As a consequence, once the dust has settled, people are likely to scrutinise what was done and assess how things could have been done better.

As search boxes are combed by air and sea assets, the reports sent by such assets aid authorities in compiling a picture of the area they are searching. Even reports of zero sightings are valuable. Such nil returns help authorities verify the areas where nothing was found. Without such nil returns, authorities would have to keep guessing which grid squares may hold clues to the location of the missing airliner.

So every contribution counts. 

And when lives are at stake, every additional moment that an aircraft can use to scan its patch of sea contributes to the overall mission success.

And when help is needed, it is indeed heartwarming to know the professionals in our Air Force are dependable, capable and willing to get on with their assigned mission, even when the distance seems far and mission challenges complex.

Our hearts go out to the next of kin of the people onboard AirAsia Flight QZ8501.

1 comment:

shawncentric said...

December seems to be a rather 'bad' month for Indonesia disaster-wise. As you mentioned, it's the tenth anniversary of the 2014 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

It's also 18 years since SilkAir Flight MI185 went down in Palembang in December 1997, and on 1 Jan 2007 Adam Air KI574 went down in the Makkassar Strait after leaving Surabaya - in rather similar circumstances to AirAsia QZ8501. In all four situations Singapore military assets were deployed to aid our ASEAN neighbour.

The diversity of RSAF assets deployed shows that Singapore has a diverse range of assets that are suitable for such situations, and especially highlights the capabilities of the RSN to respond to a regional emergency.

The RSS Valour and Supreme had the sustained high speed to reach the search area quickly and begin initial search and rescue operations. The Persistence will be able to provide helicopter support, floating medical facilities, as well as use her well deck for wreckage recovery, the Kallang will provide underwater search (a role similar to the one she played in Dec 1997 during the recovery of SilkAir Flight 185) and the Swift Rescue is well equipped for underwater salvage/recovery and diver support.

The operation also does again highlight the RSAF's lack of a proper long endurance MPA aircraft - images of the C-130 crews using Mark 1 eyeballs out of small viewports shows the rather basic nature of RSAF aircraft deployed for long range search - as was seen back in March during the initial MH730 search effort in the South China Sea. The C130Bs aren't equipped with 'proper' overwater search and surveillance sensors that the RSAF's Fokker 50 MPAs have, but the Fokkers are simply too short-legged. In fact, instead of flying C130s back and forth from Singapore, in hindsight it might have been better to TDY two Fokker 50 MPA to Surabaya (similar to their deployment during the Adam Air search phase).

Back in 2010 there were reports that Singapore was going to acquire used P-3 Orions from the US but nothing concrete emerged. With two examples in the past year highlighting the requirement for a long endurance maritime patrol aircraft, we perhaps could see the RSAF issue a RFP in the near future.