OVER THE SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN – They stare out at a punishingly unbroken expanse of gray water that seems, at times, to blend into the clouds. Occasionally, they press their foreheads against the plane’s windows so hard they leave grease marks, their eyes darting up and down, left and right, looking for something – anything – that could explain the fate of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
The hunt for Flight 370, which vanished on March 8 during a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, is complicated in just about every way imaginable, from the vastness of the search area to its distance from land to the brutal weather that plagues it.
But for all the fancy technology on board the planes and vessels scouring the swirling waters, the best tool searchers have are their own eyes.
Those eyes can spot things man-made equipment cannot. But they are also subject to the peculiarities of the human brain. They can play tricks. They can blink at the wrong moment. They can, and often do, grow weary.
“It is incredibly fatiguing work,” says Flight Lt. Stephen Graham, tactical coordinator for the crew on board a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion that has made six sorties into the southern Indian Ocean search zone. “If it’s bright and glaring, obviously sunglasses help, but there’s only so much you can do.”
“The P-3 has a lot of really advanced sensors and they’re really useful in our other roles, but for search and rescue, when you can’t guarantee a large or a metallic target, vision is the best that you’ve got,” Graham said at an air base near Perth, Australia.
Inside the shadowy confines of New Zealand’s P-3 Orion, the spotters drop into their seats, which they swivel toward the window and inch forward before leaning into the bubble-shaped windows that extend outward from the plane, permitting them to see straight down. When the oils from their skin smudge the window, they wipe away the marks with eyeglass cloths.
There are two spotters on either side of the aircraft. They rest their elbows on a padded shelf, their binoculars sitting at arm’s reach.
A small pocket near each window contains safety manuals, paperwork and a handful of barf bags. On at least one particularly bumpy flight, the crew had to use them.
They’re trained to constantly move their eyes – in an X pattern, or up and down – whatever keeps them alert, says Ron Bishop, who once trained spotters and was formerly second-in-charge of the U.S. Air Force Rescue and Special Operations School at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M.
Still, the monotony of the sea can do funny things to the eyes.
“When your eyes sit at a single focus, they do seem to lock into that, and it’s very easy to glaze over and start missing things,” Graham says. “So one of the things we’re trained to do is just shift your focal point – so look at the wing tip or look inside just for half a second and then out again, and try and keep your mind active.”
No one on board is a designated spotter; everyone rotates positions, which is the best weapon against fatigue. Thirty minutes in the seat is ideal, but they can go up to an hour. Longer than that, Graham says, and effectiveness starts to wane.
The weather further complicates their jobs. When it’s calm and the seas are glassy, anything unusual is easy to spot. When the wind is up and the waves are high, the added motion and color from the whitecaps are a distraction. The speed of the aircraft, too, means there is little time to verify what an object is before it has slipped from view.
The search for Flight 370 remains a huge, complex mission, but for Graham, it’s not an impossible one. They have hunted for tiny targets across massive areas before. And sometimes in the haystack, the needle emerges.
“You might be looking for a single canoe in the vastness of the Pacific and we do find them,” Graham says. “So there is always hope.”