From left, Petty Officer 1st Class Jim Fielder, the plane's engineer, Lt. Heather Majeska, a copilot, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Anders Forsberg, who operated the plane's communications, search for debris. Despite the wealth of technology involved in the search for El Faro survivors, eyes are still one of the most important tools in the search, and everyone is expected to keep a look out.
The plane makes a sharp bank to "orbit," or fly back over, a piece of debris that the crew wants to check. On the second pass, the cockpit crew gives it another look, as will the crewmember operating the onboard camera. Here, Petty Officers 3rd Class Chris LaBelle, left, and Mark Strock sit on the edge of the cargo door in hopes of getting a better perspective on the debris.
LaBelle, the navigator, points out the plane's planned grid en route to the search area. The land mass to the left is San Salvador Island, Bahamas, and the grid requires that pilots fly in a 44-mile lane in one direction, make a U-turn almost two miles wide, and then fly back 44 miles parallel to the previous lane. The total flight was about 700 miles, roughly the distance from Minneapolis to Denver.
The HC-130 passes back over San Salvador Island, Bahamas, on its way back to the base in Clearwater, Florida. The starting point for the more than 1,000-square-mile search Monday was just northeast of San Salvador Island, in the Atlantic Ocean. The Coast Guard announced while this plane was airborne that the search for the actual container ship was over and the focus was now solely on survivors.
This image demonstrates the difficulty of spotting survivors or recoverable items, even from the frighteningly low altitude of 500 feet.
The plane passes over Eleuthera, another Bahamian island, located about 50 miles east of Nassau. The crew had been mildly concerned about weather before takeoff, but they called the conditions for Monday's search prime, explaining that with few clouds and no whitecaps on the smooth ocean surface, it was much easier to spot and identify debris.
The plane neared the search grid just after the sun rose. The crew timed its departure from Clearwater, just before 5 a.m. ET, to maximize the sunlight. But even with optimum conditions and a wealth of debris on the water, it was difficult to see each piece -- and more importantly, determine if anyone might be clinging to it -- so the plane often made multiple passes over anything the crew deemed possibly recoverable.
Majeska, one of the copilots, snacks on a cinnamon bun while flying the plane and keeping a close watch on the water below. The task of straining your eyes to see debris floating on the water up to a mile in the distance, doubling back and taking a closer look, for a period of about 10 hours is a grueling one, so everyone on board brought plenty of food -- pizza, breakfast burritos, salads, yogurt, bologna sandwiches, sushi -- to keep their energy up for the long mission.
When the HC-130 first took off, the cockpit was dark, the instruments on the control panel offering the only light. Here, the first rays of sun gleam into the cockpit as Lt. Janelle Setta, a copilot, left, and Fielder, the engineer, guide the plane to the search area.
The Lockheed HC-130 that took the CNN crew up is a modified version of the C-130 Hercules transport plane. This model is suited specifically for search-and-rescue missions, whether they be in combat or otherwise. Though Monday's search kept the plane in the air for 10 hours, it landed with more than 15,000 pounds of fuel. A Coast Guard pilot told CNN that in the event of an emergency or change of plans, the plane could have remained in the air several more hours.