Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force continue to make a valuable contribution to the Australian-led search for the missing Malaysian airliner MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean.
Following a request by the Malaysian authorities for support from the Royal Navy, the survey ship HMS Echo was diverted from her patrol in the Indian Ocean, and the nuclear submarine HMS Tireless has also been re-tasked to help in the search.
Working alongside ships and aircraft from seven other nations, the two Royal Navy vessels face the same race against time to find the black box flight recorder from missing MH370.
HMS Echo is currently searching a vast area 1,000 miles north-west of Perth in company with Chinese vessels Haixun and Dong Hai Jiu, where sensors from one of the Chinese vessels picked up a possible signal on April 5.
The Royal Australian Navy’s vessel Ocean Shield is searching 300 miles to the north and she detected signals possibly from the plane’s flight recorders the following day.
HMS Tireless is also working as part of the co-ordinated international search. Her sonar, like Echo’s, is listening for the ‘ping’ sent out every second by the black box transponder as long as its battery lasts.
And RAF personnel have been flying in Royal Australian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force maritime patrol aircraft scouring the waters from above, looking for debris and dropping listening buoys.
The most promising leads have come from the ships now at the forefront of the search, but the Australian authorities urged caution, saying there was no confirmation that these signals were from the missing plane.
On this mission HMS Echo has so far searched an area ten times the size of Greater London – some 6,000 square miles of ocean.
Her hi-tech sonar has been specially adapted so it can pick up any transmissions on the black box’s frequency – this is the first time Echo’s sonar has been used this way and so far it has located several possible contacts – but sadly none of them proved to be from MH370’s black box.
The ship has lookouts posted around the clock scanning the ocean for possible debris. HMS Echo’s duty swimmer AB Joshua Ruff has been in the water several times to recover objects, none of which so far have come from the crashed jet.
Given the scale and importance of the task – Echo’s Commanding Officer Commander Phillip Newell said his 60 men and women were giving the search their all. “My ship’s company are working 24/7 to find MH370. They are young, bright and enthusiastic and will step up to every challenge in the search for the missing aircraft. I am immensely proud of them.”
Lt Andy Thomas said his engineering team had been working around the clock to ensure Echo reached the search area in good time and that the equipment aboard the Devonport-based ship was ready for a mission beyond the norm. “My engineers worked incredibly hard to ensure the main engines and electrical propulsion drives have been running at full power, in order to reach the search area in the shortest possible time,” said the 31-year-old from Fareham. At the same time, we checked and maintained the survey equipment held on board to allow us the best possible chance to find the aircraft flight data recorder. Despite the sombre nature of our task I feel privileged to be granted the opportunity to assist in hopefully bringing some closure to the families and loved ones of those involved.”
His sentiments are echoed by Petty Officer Simon Hamilton, in charge of seamanship aboard the survey ship. The 42-year-old from Coventry said: “We train hard to do what we do and sometimes it is hard to deal with what is placed in front of us. At the end of the day, if we can find answers for the relatives of MH370 then it will be a good day for the Royal Navy and a good day for me.”
Echo, which is normally based in Devonport, was gathering data on her way from Oman to the Seychelles when she received orders to sail to the southern Indian Ocean to join the international search. Apart from a 12-hour stop in the Maldives to take on supplies and change some of her crew, the survey ship has now been at sea continuously for six weeks.
As for Tireless, the Trafalgar-class submarine has been away from Plymouth for three months. These deployments continue the Royal Navy’s commitment to the Asia Pacific region and to international humanitarian missions in it: HMS Daring visited Australia last year as part of her global deployment and both Daring and HMS Illustrious played a vital role in providing aid in the Philippines following the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan.