Inside the U.S. Navy’s MH370 Search

The U.S. Navy has been using multiple platforms – both ships and advanced aircraft – to search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Below are two frequently asked questions and their answers from our pilots about the Navy’s search.

Navy Live: I heard the weather is getting bad. How do the aircraft search in bad weather?

Pilots: These planes are built for all-weather operations. Even when the weather is bad, we don’t give up the radar search and exclusively switch to visual, we simply adjust and search smarter. The P-3 and P-8 are all-weather aircraft with multiple sensors, and the radar is pretty amazing in that you can adjust for sea clutter to optimize the search. Therefore, the tactical coordinator will optimize his or her search tactics to exploit all sensors in an order of priority that matches the environment. If the weather is obscuring the visual search, then radar will become primary sensor (and vice versa) depending on the environment.

Here is an example:  The radar can alert a crew that something abnormal exists on the surface of the ocean, whether it be a ship, a life raft, or a small object. Then the electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera can provide the visual picture, acting as the eyes of the crew, day or night. The combination of radar and electro-optical/infrared is a significant enhancement over a visual search, as it increases the area of coverage and the probability that even a small object on the water’s surface will be detected. Alert observers looking out the windows of the aircraft still have a role to play as the plane gets lower for a visual confirmation.

Lt. j.g. Kyle Atakturk, left, and Lt. j.g. Nicholas Horton, naval aviators assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 16, pilot a P-8A Poseidon during a mission to assist in search and rescue operations for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, March 19, 2014. VP-16 is deployed in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric A. Pastor/Released)

Lt. j.g. Kyle Atakturk, left, and Lt. j.g. Nicholas Horton, naval aviators assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 16, pilot a P-8A Poseidon during a mission to assist in search and rescue operations for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, March 19, 2014. VP-16 is deployed in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric A. Pastor/Released)

Navy Live: What is each mission like?

Pilots: The missions are generally scheduled to be airborne for nine to 10 hours total, including any time spent transiting to and from the search area. In order to reach the outer search areas west of Perth, P-8A has to transit up to 1500 nautical miles, leaving about three hours to conduct an on station search prior to returning to base. In the course of one flight, the planes can cover anywhere from 5,000-18,000 square nautical miles (depending on how far they need to go to get to the search area and how much overlap the search includes.)