Remote Ocean Area Tests Limits of Patrol Aircraft

20 March 2014

The Washington Post reports – WASHINGTON DC – The remoteness of the search area off the west coast of Australia is testing the limits of the maritime patrol aircraft tasked with finding signs of Flight 370 – including the newest plane in the American fleet.

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The contingent includes one U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon – a brand new platform which only

began its first overseas deployment last December 

A group of Australian, New Zealand and U.S. aircraft has been assembled in the western Australian city of Perth in order to search an area of ocean more than 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) from land. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced Thursday that objects possibly relating to Flight 370 had been spotted by satellites in that area. The planes searched but returned to base without finding them, hampered by bad weather.

The contingent includes one U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon – a brand new platform which only began its first overseas deployment last December – operating alongside five older P-3C Orions. India has also added the Poseidon to its fleet, and Australia has placed orders for the aircraft.

The Boeing Co.BA +0.32% Poseidon typically conducts a search by descending to around 1,000 to 1,500 feet, at which point objects on the surface of the water become visible to the naked eye. The crew also employs the plane’s surveillance systems – which include radar, and visual and infra-red cameras – to scan the area, as the aircraft patrols at a speed of 280 knots.

While the Cold War-era Orion, built by Lockheed Martin Corp.LMT -0.05%, also has some impressive surveillance capabilities, the Poseidon has greater speed and endurance – important benefits when patrolling remote locations.

The jet-powered Poseidon can reach the target area more quickly, and then spend longer on station. The Wall Street Journal joined a P-8A patrol over the Bay of Bengal Sunday, and the aircraft was able to spend four and a half hours searching an area 900 miles away from its base near Kuala Lumpur.

“I have a place in my heart for the P-3, but the P-8 really is amazing, it’s much newer and smoother,” said Petty Officer Robert Pillars, who has flown on both types.

However, the U.S. P-8A – which arrived Tuesday in Perth – must now tackle a much more challenging search zone roughly 1,400 to 1,500 miles out to sea, according to maps published Thursday by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, or AMSA.

The northern and southern "corridors" where the search for MAS Flight MH 370 is concentrated

The northern and southern “corridors” where the search for MAS Flight MH 370 is concentrated

At that range, the Poseidon must spend around eight hours travelling to and from the search zone, in order to secure a few hours’ patrol time.

 

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