Skip to main content

Air search for Flight 370: 'I want to give them answers'

By Kyung Lah, CNN
updated 5:51 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
  • CNN reporter Kyung Lah travels with a U.S. Navy search team over the Indian Ocean
  • The P8 is a Boeing 737 souped up with classified electronics and intelligence
  • Patrol plane scours vast area at 500 feet above the water
  • New search area is based on what Australian government said was credible evidence

Over the Indian Ocean (CNN) -- The P8 Poseidon dips to the marked spot on the right, tipping closer towards the newly set search zone in the southern Indian Ocean.

The entire right window of the spotter's seat is filled with azure blue, zooming by at 302 mph. We're 500 feet above the ocean, but to my untrained eye, it looks so close it's as if I'm on a high diving board skimming a swirling sea.

"We saw a couple of things on our way in," explains U.S. Navy Lt. Josh Mize, the tactical coordinator of Rescue 74, the call sign for Friday's mission to seek out debris from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The P8 is a Boeing 737 souped up with classified U.S. government electronics and intelligence, powered by jets that move it more nimbly than any consumer plane on the civilian market. I'd love to show you a picture of it, but the State Department forbids any pictures by civilians, ordering me to leave all electronic equipment on the ground.

A policewoman watches a couple whose son was on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 cry outside the airline's office building in Beijing after officials refused to meet with them on Wednesday, June 11. The jet has been missing since March 8. A policewoman watches a couple whose son was on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 cry outside the airline's office building in Beijing after officials refused to meet with them on Wednesday, June 11. The jet has been missing since March 8.
The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
Photos: The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Photos: The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
Fresh clues in new search area
Malaysia vows not to give up search
Malaysia's missteps in plane search

Petty Officer 1st class Robert Pillars called for the "mark on top," the signal for the P8 crew to immediately mark the coordinates on the map. Pillars spotted white objects floating in the distance.

I'm one of three reporters on this embed to the new search area. Just hours before, the Australian government said credible evidence supported moving the search 680 miles northeast of the prior search zone. I'm clutching the military green life vest on this tilting jet, wondering if this might just be the debris of Flight 370.

We make a second pass over the mark.

The 360-degree rotation camera positioned just behind the front landing gear spins around, capturing something in the water.

Lt. Clayton Hunt, the patrol plane commander, calls in three items to the regional communications center: the white objects spotted by Pillars, an orange rope and a blue-green bag. The P8 requests that a boat head to the objects and check on them. But the items don't appear important enough to drop a tracking buoy.

Four other planes will report similar debris to the Australians from the new search area.

The P8 continues on, in the hunt to find debris from the missing plane.

"Mowing the ocean"

The two-hour, 20-minute flight to the new search zone is casual and lighthearted, as the Navy crew adjusts to journalists peppering them with questions. The P8, described by Boeing as the world's most advanced anti-submarine, anti-surface warfare aircraft, flies along a bright fuchsia line on the radar screen.

The flight plan estimates a 3,000-mile trip. Once in the search zone, the fuchsia line forms a rectangle, with the plane crossing a horizontal path of about 200 miles, heading north 13 miles, then back across the 200 miles. It repeats the pattern twice. The plane will fly low to surface, at 500 feet.

Lt. Kyle Atakturk, the P8's patrol plane pilot, calls it "mowing the ocean."

At the search area, the chatter stops. The crew's voices lower to a whisper over their closed communications on headsets.

This is the ninth trip to the Indian Ocean for the Kadena-deployed naval crew. On half of those trips, says Lt. Clayton Hunt, the team has spotted something.

Today's weather is in stark contrast to yesterday because "visibility's been awesome, one of the best two days we've had," says Hunt, the commander. The current is so calm that the plane's shadow follows on the water's surface, perfect and zooming below. If something's out there, Hunt says, "Oh yeah, we'd see it."

But finding something and finding the plane's debris are two very different discoveries.

Frustrated families arrive in Malaysia
Flight attendant's husband speaks out
Lawsuits against Malaysia Airlines

"Every mission we see dolphins and seaweed," says Petty Officer Pillars, shaking his head. "Every time, I get like that. See it it in the distance, then get excited. And then find out its seaweed. We want to find something."

Pillars' near-boyish enthusiasm about the mission is infectious, in stark contrast to the seriousness of his eyes as they track a pattern across his spotter's window. You can tell Pillars wants to sit at the window as long as he can, rotating out only when his judgment tells him he needs to rest his eyes.

Farther down what the crew calls "the rail," because of the side-by-side radar monitors and chairs, sits Mize, the tactical coordinator. He's in charge of the operation outside the cockpit.

"Our mission is to find it," says Mize, his Southern drawl curling around his serious words. "Do I feel it? Yeah. I want to give them answers."

By "them" he means the families of the Malaysia Airlines passengers. The P8 crew, all pilots and crew aboard a plane, feel a kinship with the lives lost in the sky and the families left wondering.

"I think if I was in their shoes, I'd want proof," says Lt. Nick Horton who, along with Atakturk and Hunt, is one of three patrol plane pilots on this mission. "Not knowing is the hard thing, right?"


The P8 continues quietly. The crew chat into their headphones, inaudible above the noise of the jet. Beyond the one sighting early into the search, there's been only vast, calm sea.

About 1,500 miles into the trip, halfway through the search, the crew prepares to drop a "sonobuoy." The P8 is equipped with these devices, which it ejects into the ocean to establish drift rate by transmitting a radio frequency signal to the aircraft. The last search zone was so dynamic that it had no pattern and moved 150 yards in three minutes.

With a muted "whoop" sound, the sonobuoy is ejected. I can see a faint white parachute from the plane's video camera for a second and then it's gone into the endless blue of the ocean.

The light fading on the day, Pillars is in his final shift at his spotter's window.

The infrared camera comes on; the blue sea is green and black on the grainy screen.

The pilots announce the P8 is climbing to 37,000 feet, lifting out of the search zone and returning to Perth Airport.

The team has had one spotting -- at best, a possible lead.

It returns to the airport, greeted by another P8 that now joins the mission, more air power to try to bring the pieces of this puzzle home.

Hopes dashed as orange objects turn out to be fishing equipment

Get up to speed on the latest developments

A flight attendant's husband wants to give children answers, but has none

Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
The search for MH370 is moving to an area farther south in the Indian Ocean, said the Australian Deputy Prime Minister.
updated 8:33 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
Erin Burnett speaks to Miles O'Brien about the latest in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
Ten experts say that the search for MH370 should move hundreds of miles away from the previous search area.
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
Families are desperate for results as the search for MH370 reaches a grim milestone. Anna Coren reports from Beijing.
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
Relatives of passengers are launching an effort to raise $5 million for investigations and a "whistle blower" reward.
updated 3:31 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
Making sure another plane is never "lost" again is the immediate priority for the airline industry.
updated 11:36 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.
Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
updated 5:05 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
updated 10:21 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
There is one fundamental question which continues to swirl: Has Inmarsat got its numbers right?
updated 8:13 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Data from communications between satellites and missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was released
updated 3:42 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Family members of the people aboard missing plane want independent investigators to review the newly released satellite data.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
CNN's Richard Quest explains what kind of information should be contained in the Inmarsat data from Flight MH370.
updated 8:46 PM EDT, Mon May 26, 2014
The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
updated 3:25 PM EDT, Tue May 6, 2014
The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.