Wollongong man on the hunt for MH370

RAAF Flight Lieutenant Phil Wade.
RAAF Flight Lieutenant Phil Wade.

When the world took to the skies to search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, a man from Wollongong was keeping an eye out for the search crews.

In an era when GPS can track us to within metres of any point on the planet, when smartphones link humans  like never before, and when the continuous news cycle  ruthlessly analyses a story from every possible angle, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 captured the world’s attention like no other event in recent memory.

The 227 passengers and 12 crew, as well as their Boeing 777 aircraft, disappeared without a trace on March8. An unprecedented international search was launched, with dozens of planes and boats scouring search areas that constantly shifted as new information, hypotheses and analysis came in. First, several locations in the Gulf of Thailand, to the north-east of the plane’s origin in Kuala Lumpur, were searched, then, a location in the Malacca Strait, north-west of Kuala Lumpur.

Rapidly changing ideas and data saw the search  stretch from Kazakhstan to the middle of the Indian Ocean, as the world hung on to every news bulletin and Twitter post for the slightest update on the plane. Despite uncertainty around the lives of 239 people and daily images of distraught families screaming for answers, the world started losing interest in the event as a tragedy and began looking at it as fun – online memes sprang up, comedians had a field day and conspiracy theorists attributed the disappearance to aliens or secret military missions or even the TV show Lost.

Then, the search shifted to Australia.

On March13, US officials stated they had indications MH370 had gone down in the Indian Ocean, thousands of kilometres west of Perth. Australia took leadership of the search on March17, co-ordinating an effort that included an armada of ships and aircraft from half a dozen countries, scouring hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of  ocean in several separate search zones off the coast of Western Australia.

Wollongong boy, Flight Lieutenant Phil Wade, of the Royal Australian Air Force, was in charge of making sure none of the planes ran into one another.

“I’m an air combat officer, or an ACO. I’m an air battle manager, which basically controls the skies. It’s a bit like an air traffic controller, but more tactical,” Lt Wade, 38, says from his current posting in Newcastle.

“It’s providing direction to air assets.’’

Wade was born in Sydney and his family moved to Kiama when he was 12. Attending St Joseph’s in Albion Park, then Edmund Rice College in his high school years, he went to Canberra to study for a bachelor of science at the Australian Defence Force Academy and to begin his career in the air force. He started in ground-based radar operations, but an exchange program with the British Royal Air Force put him on the path to an air-based role aboard the Wedgetail 737 airborne early warning and control (AEWC) aircraft.

“My job is to take input from a variety of sensors, and send out advice and a picture of what’s happening to other air assets,” he says.

“It’s high pressure. It’s a dynamic environment, where things are changing fairly rapidly.”

He has had postings to Canberra, Newcastle and the Katherine, as well as stints in Afghanistan as part of his British exchange. Having spent his adult life with his eyes on the skies, the sudden disappearance of MH370 on March8 instantly roused his interest.

“I saw something on Facebook early on, when the aircraft was reported as not having landed in China,” he says.

“I kept a close eye on developments, and watched as the other RAAF guys on the P-3 aircraft were deployed to Asia to search. Then, as the search areas changed and shifted toward Australia, my squadron was tasked to help.”

Wade says he and his team had been itching to become involved with what would become the largest search operation in human history, a multinational effort using dozens of ships and planes.

“I was completely intrigued by the disappearance. It’s one of the biggest aviation mysteries ever,” he says.

“I definitely did feel a bit of a keenness to participate, even before we were tasked to be involved. The whole world watching, and I knew my squadron could contribute.”

Wade’s team, the No2 squadron, was deployed on their Wedgetail AEWC to keep a watchful eye over the planes keeping a watchful eye on the seas. Part of the Southern Indian Ocean Air Task Group, based at RAAF Base Learmonth in Western Australia, his squad flew out to search zones each day, flying three hours each way to keep an eye on the search aircraft from nations including China, Japan, South Korea and the US. He acted as the squad’s mission commander and provided logistical support and guidance to the fleets of air and seacraft scanning the oceans for traces of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight. It proved a taxing job.

“I had a team of six or so people working for me, identifying the search assets out there on radar systems, and providing a safety overwatch,” he says.

“Language was the main barrier, but it was a team effort and the various international players worked well together in the end. There was professionalism and hard work out there from the searching vessels, and we had no incidents and no issues.

“We played our part,” he says simply.

Theories from an unsuccessful terrorist hijacking to an onboard fire, the plane being safely landed and held hostage somewhere in Asia, or being shot down by a foreign military have been bandied around since the first news of the plane’s disappearance. Indeed, a recent CNN poll found 9per cent of Americans believed “space aliens, time travellers or beings from another dimension’’ were involved. Having spent three weeks as part of the MH370 search,  Wade had ideas of his own, but is reticent about sharing them.

“I had lots of theories. I tried to use my own experience of flying, and knowledge of systems, to try and find a viable theory...” he says, trailing off before adding, “I guess everyone had their own theory.”

As the search progressed, and with a global public hungry for even the smallest scraps of information, the tiniest details made international headlines. 

Analysis of satellite data “pings” was extrapolated to pinpoint several search corridors in the Indian Ocean. Revised estimates about fuel usage and, therefore, the maximum distance the plane could have travelled on one tank of fuel, shifted search zones. A string of satellite images picked up what appeared to be large pieces of floating debris in the ocean, sparking a scramble for search vessels to reach those areas, described by Prime Minister Tony Abbott as “as close to nowhere as it’s possible to be” – up to 3000kilometres west of the Australian coast. 

Each discovery of possible wreckage was accompanied by renewed interest in the search, but each proved to be a false alarm, as debris either disappeared by the time crews reached the area, or it proved to be unrelated to the plane search. 

Wade says the continual let-downs, as frustrating as they were for the public eager for confirmation on what had happened to MH370, were even harder for the search crews to stomach.

“It’s just human nature. We were all keen to find something, and there were a lot of sightings of various objects that turned out to be rubbish or something that wasn’t relevant to the search,” he says.

 “There was an element of disappointment every time that happened.”

Wade says the disappointment was compounded by media commentators criticising the protracted and unfruitful search efforts, as well as jokes being made at the searchers’ expense.

“It was hard not to see it in the media, to not follow all the reports. We knew the world was watching and waiting with bated breath for an outcome,” Wade says.

“We used it as motivation to maintain energies and efforts.”

Ultimately, Wade and his crew were taken off the search effort and the air search was totally cancelled several weeks ago. 

On Thursday The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said the search in the zone of the acoustic detections had been completed and the area could be discounted as the final resting place of MH370.

The Joint Agency Coordination Centre is now casting its net much wider, but is still following an arc defined by British company Inmarsat based on the final ‘‘handshakes’’ between the Boeing 777 and satellites.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston told a special Four Corners report “over the next eight to 12 months, we will find the aircraft; we’ll find its final resting place”. 

Lt Wade agrees.

“I’m confident something will be found, and the mystery will be solved eventually,” he says.