Ground crew works nights to keep MH370 search aloft

MH370 search ground crew
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Ground crew works nights to keep MH370 search aloft
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 10 : A handout image released by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in Canberra, Australia, 10 April 2014, shows the search area in the Indian Ocean, West of Australia, where 14 planes and 13 ships are scouring a 57,923 square km area of ocean for the wreckage of flight MH370 on 10 April 2014. Flight MH370 went missing after losing radio contact with Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control after leaving Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 8. The Beijing-bound flight carried 239 passengers including 12 flight crew from 14 different countries. (Photo by AMSA/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Angus Houston (2nd-L), head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 speaks at a media conference in Perth on April 9, 2014. Australian ship Ocean Shield detected two more signals on April 8 to match a pair of transmissions picked up earlier in the week that have been analysed as consistent with flight data recorder emissions, Houston said. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 08: Defence Minister David Johnston (R) responds to a reporters question together with Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (Ret'd) during a press conference over the continuing search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at RAAF Base Pearce on April 8, 2014 in Perth, Australia. ACM Angus Houston advised the towed pinger by ADV Ocean Shield is still trying to re-locate the signals previously detected, which were believed to be consistent with aircraft black boxes. The airliner disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board and is suspected to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
A Chinese relative (R) of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 holds a candle as she takes part in a prayer service at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has turned up nothing, despite a massive operation involving seven countries and repeated sightings of suspected debris. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
Angus Houston, head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, points to a graphic of the search area during a media conference in Perth on April 7, 2014. An Australian navy ship has detected new underwater signals consistent with aircraft black boxes, Houston said on April 7, describing it as the 'most promising lead' so far in the month-old hunt for missing Flight MH370. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)


RAAF BASE PEARCE, Australia (AP) - As the brilliant orange glow of another Australian sunset fades and the raucous engines of the search planes stop whirring, the men and women who keep this high-profile operation in the air switch on the floodlights and get busy.

The ground crews at this air force base near Perth typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of missing Flight 370 continues.

While the pilots at Royal Australian Air Force Base Pearce have been getting plenty of attention - including Australian Flight Lieutenant Russell Adams who quickly became a heartthrob for some in the mold of the movie "Top Gun" - the ground staff here play an equally vital role.

"We might not get all the limelight," said Leading Aircraftman Andrew Smith, an aircraft technician who works on the four Australian P-3 Orion planes involved in the search, "but definitely the right people in the right places know and appreciate the work that we do."

After every flight, the planes need to be refueled and run through a full inspection. Oils and fluids are topped up, and dangerous equipment aboard like smoke locator beacons are carefully removed and stored in a secure spot. Repairs can range from plugging a minor leak to replacing a propeller assembly.

Something as simple as a clogged air pressure gauge could have a catastrophic effect on a flight, but Smith said they take such responsibility in stride.

"We are trained and briefed all the time not to feel pressure, and to do whatever changes we can in our own time," he said. "We've got plenty of people who will inspect our work after us. And inspect it again."

Most of the work holds no glamour. Getting rid of the salt spray that can rust a plane, for instance, is similar to washing a car. It requires soap, water and brushes. The only difference is that a crew of 20 needs five solid hours to fully clean a plane, a process they undertake every six weeks.

In all, about 50 ground staff work on the Australian Orions. Crews from other countries involved in the search work on their own planes, which continue to scour the Indian Ocean for signs of debris from the Malaysia Airlines flight that went missing one month ago.

The Australian crew, normally based in the city of Adelaide, don't have suitable hangars at Pearce. That means all their maintenance is done on the tarmac and in any type of weather. Two-thirds work nights, typically 7 p.m. until 7 a.m., while the lucky ones get to work day shifts.

"One of the big challenges of the deployment so far has been the short notice," said Squadron Leader Nathan Poyner, the senior engineering officer with the Australians. "The effect on the guys of saying, 'OK, we are all going to Perth. Pack your bags, we are leaving tomorrow.' They have no idea how long they are going to be here."

Poyner said the crews brought with them enough spare parts to fill three military transport planes. He said the search has offered an unusual opportunity to collaborate with other nations.

"Occasionally they've had a request for spare parts, and we've been able to help them out, loan them stuff," he said.

Leading Aircraftman Jason Savage, an avionics technician, said the age of the planes, which date from the late 1960s but which have been upgraded over the years, means they need to keep a close eye on them.

"Imagine a car that's 50 years old," he said. "Absolutely anything can break down."

Smith said his friends have been asking him for inside details on the search, but he doesn't have much to tell them, even if he were permitted. They've also been wishing him luck, he said, because they want the family and friends of those aboard to get answers and find some closure.

"We may not be famous," said Savage, "but we certainly do get some good feedback."

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