Weather Watch

Searching the seas by air often a tough task

Special to The TribuneMarch 22, 2014 

A photo of a suspected drug boat seen off the coast of Central America in 2005.

JOHN LINDSEY

Most of us have watched the search for the Malaysia Airlines’ Boeing 777 over the past few weeks.

It’s unfathomable to imagine the emotional swings of the families and friends of the passengers and crew of this lost aircraft. At this point, we just don't know what happened to this plane, and there is a possibility we may never know.

I do know this: The Navy aircrews that fly the P-3 Orion, P-8 Neptune or H-60 Seahawk will do everything they can to find this missing aircraft.

The search reminds me of my own Navy experience, when our ship received word of a fishing vessel in distress and sinking off the coast of Western Sahara in North Africa in 1983.

After a thorough briefing, we launched in our trusty H-2 Seasprite helicopter from the deck of the USS Trippe (FF-1075). In the bright morning light, we flew to the last known position of the boat and started our search. As the search progressed, we flew in ever larger patterns over the eastern Atlantic Ocean in a desperate hunt for survivors.

That night, I spotted a small contact on the helicopter’s radar, and we made a beeline for it. A few hundred yards away, one of the pilots saw a black triangular object that stuck out of the water.

As we flew over it, an enormous black silhouette of a fish that was bigger than our helicopter emerged with its megamouth wide open. At first glance, I thought this mammoth sea creature had turned the tables on the fishermen and had devoured them, like the depiction of Jonah in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. In reality, a basking shark was below us. These sharks are the second-largest fish in the ocean and are plankton-feeders, not survivor eaters.

As the flight hours went by, thick dust that blew off the Sahara Desert toward the Cape Verde Islands clung to the helicopter, especially those areas that held oil or grease. The Sahara dust produced a reddish-brown crust that thickened with each flight hour.

After 72 hours of this marathon search, we received word the fishing boat reached port in the Canary Islands two days earlier. To say we were frustrated would be an understatement.

Later in my naval career, I helped to search for submarines, ships and drug smuggling boats in a Navy P-3 Orion — a long-range, four-propeller maritime patrol aircraft. The search of subs and “go-fast” smuggling boats is like locating a lost car key in a stadium. It requires close crew coordination between the pilots, navigator, tactical coordinator, radar and acoustic operators to successfully find these vessels.

However, when gale-force winds blow, high seas and whitecaps develop on the ocean’s surface, which can hide the silhouette of these boats. To make matters more difficult, long hours of looking out over vast expanses of blue from an aircraft, combined with vibration of the engines and the turbulence of flying low can lull you to sleep.

In the worst-case scenarios, you can actually see imaginary contacts on the ocean’s surface as your body transitions from sleep to awake.

To locate debris from a plane crash in the ocean is more of a challenge. Even if the position of a plane’s crash site is known and close to the coastline, locating its debris or victims can be nearly impossible as strong ocean currents and high waves can move or even bury aircraft parts in the sand. Combined with frigid temperatures and near-zero seawater, visibility can make the task even more difficult for divers.

Earlier this year, local search teams scoured the ocean off Oceano for a private plane that went down with two men aboard. Sadly, the two did not survive. But the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Unit, Cal Fire, Five Cities Fire Authority, Port San Luis Harbor Patrol, and Coast Guard and CHP helicopters all should be commended for locating the remains from that aircraft.

Land stewardship is important to PG&E. The company manages 12,820 acres that surround Diablo Canyon Power Plant. This has allowed for coastal hiking trails open for public use, including the Pecho Coast Trail that leads to the restored Point San Luis Lighthouse and the Point Buchon Trail, which leads to Windy Point. To learn more about these preserved lands, visit www.pge.com.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and a longtime local meteorologist. He is president of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers. If you have a question, send him an email at pgeweather@pge.com.

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