Spotters fight fatigue in hunt for jet lost at sea

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In this Monday, March 24, 2014 photo, a crew member of an Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion patrol plane, looks out of his observation window whilst searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean. They lean forward as far as they can, occasionally pressing their foreheads against the plane’s windows so hard they leave grease marks, staring out at a punishingly unbroken expanse of gray water that seems, at times, to blend into the clouds. Their eyes dart up and down, left and right, looking for something – anything – that could explain the fate of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. (AP Photo/Richard Wainwright, Pool, File)

In this Monday, March 24, 2014 photo, a crew member of an Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion patrol plane, looks out of his observation window whilst searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean. They lean forward as far as they can, occasionally pressing their foreheads against the plane’s windows so hard they leave grease marks, staring out at a punishingly unbroken expanse of gray water that seems, at times, to blend into the clouds. Their eyes dart up and down, left and right, looking for something – anything – that could explain the fate of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. (AP Photo/Richard Wainwright, Pool, File)

FILE – In this Monday, March 24, 2014 file photo, crewmen of an Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft look out of their observation windows whilst searching for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean. There are two spotters on either side of the aircraft. They rest their elbows on a padded shelf, their binoculars sitting at arm’s reach. A small pocket near each window contains safety manuals, paperwork and a handful of barf bags. On at least one particularly bumpy flight, the crew had to use them. (AP Photo/Richard Wainwright, Pool, File)

Royal New Zealand Air force Flight Lt. Stephen Graham explains the workings of the P-3C Orion while the crew has a rest day from searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Thursday, March 27, 2014. “It is incredibly fatiguing work,” said Graham, tactical coordinator for the crew on board a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion that has made six sorties into the southern Indian Ocean search zone. “If it’s bright and glaring obviously sunglasses help, but there’s only so much you can do.” (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Royal New Zealand Air force Flight Lt. Stephen Graham walks around their P-3C Orion while the crew has a rest day from searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Thursday, March 27, 2014. “It is incredibly fatiguing work,” said Graham, tactical coordinator for the crew on board a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion that has made six sorties into the southern Indian Ocean search zone. “If it’s bright and glaring obviously sunglasses help, but there’s only so much you can do.” (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

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OVER THE SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN (AP) — They stare out at a punishingly unbroken expanse of gray water that seems, at times, to blend into the clouds. Occasionally, they press their foreheads against the plane’s windows so hard they leave grease marks, their eyes darting up and down, left and right, looking for something — anything — that could explain the fate of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

The hunt for Flight 370, which vanished on March 8 during a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, is complicated in just about every way imaginable, from the vastness of the search area to its distance from land to the brutal weather that plagues it. But for all the fancy technology on board the planes and vessels scouring the swirling waters, the best tool searchers have are their own eyes.

Those eyes can spot things man-made equipment cannot. But they are also subject to the peculiarities of the human brain. They can play tricks. They can blink at the wrong moment. They can, and often do, grow weary.

“It is incredibly fatiguing work,” says Flight Lt. Stephen Graham, tactical coordinator for the crew on board a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion that has made six sorties into the southern Indian Ocean search zone. “If it’s bright and glaring obviously sunglasses help, but there’s only so much you can do.”

Search and rescue makes up a small part of what Graham’s squadron does, and visual spotting is an even smaller subset of that. But everyone on board has had to learn how to do it — and it’s not as simple as most people think. Graham learned as part of a yearlong training stint in Canada, further refined his skills during a six-month course in New Zealand and has had ongoing training since.

Crew members have to know what they’re doing, because the electronic equipment on board sometimes doesn’t.

“The P-3 has a lot of really advanced sensors and they’re really useful in our other roles, but for search and rescue, when you can’t guarantee a large or a metallic target, vision is the best that you’ve got,” Graham said at an air base near Perth.

Inside the shadowy confines of New Zealand’s P-3 Orion, the spotters drop into their seats, which they swivel toward the window and inch forward before leaning into the bubble-shaped windows that extend outward from the plane, permitting them to see straight down. When the oils from their skin smudge the window, they wipe away the marks with eyeglass cloths.

There are two spotters on either side of the aircraft. They rest their elbows on a padded shelf, their binoculars sitting at arm’s reach. A small pocket near each window contains safety manuals, paperwork and a handful of barf bags. On at least one particularly bumpy flight, the crew had to use them.

They don’t have to have naturally perfect vision;

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Spotters fight fatigue in hunt for jet lost at sea

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In this Monday, March 24, 2014 photo, a crew member of an Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion patrol plane, looks out of his observation window whilst searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean. They lean forward as far as they can, occasionally pressing their foreheads against the plane’s windows so hard they leave grease marks, staring out at a punishingly unbroken expanse of gray water that seems, at times, to blend into the clouds. Their eyes dart up and down, left and right, looking for something – anything – that could explain the fate of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. (AP Photo/Richard Wainwright, Pool, File)

In this Monday, March 24, 2014 photo, a crew member of an Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion patrol plane, looks out of his observation window whilst searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean. They lean forward as far as they can, occasionally pressing their foreheads against the plane’s windows so hard they leave grease marks, staring out at a punishingly unbroken expanse of gray water that seems, at times, to blend into the clouds. Their eyes dart up and down, left and right, looking for something – anything – that could explain the fate of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. (AP Photo/Richard Wainwright, Pool, File)

FILE – In this Monday, March 24, 2014 file photo, crewmen of an Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft look out of their observation windows whilst searching for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean. There are two spotters on either side of the aircraft. They rest their elbows on a padded shelf, their binoculars sitting at arm’s reach. A small pocket near each window contains safety manuals, paperwork and a handful of barf bags. On at least one particularly bumpy flight, the crew had to use them. (AP Photo/Richard Wainwright, Pool, File)

Royal New Zealand Air force Flight Lt. Stephen Graham explains the workings of the P-3C Orion while the crew has a rest day from searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Thursday, March 27, 2014. “It is incredibly fatiguing work,” said Graham, tactical coordinator for the crew on board a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion that has made six sorties into the southern Indian Ocean search zone. “If it’s bright and glaring obviously sunglasses help, but there’s only so much you can do.” (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Royal New Zealand Air force Flight Lt. Stephen Graham walks around their P-3C Orion while the crew has a rest day from searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Thursday, March 27, 2014. “It is incredibly fatiguing work,” said Graham, tactical coordinator for the crew on board a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion that has made six sorties into the southern Indian Ocean search zone. “If it’s bright and glaring obviously sunglasses help, but there’s only so much you can do.” (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

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OVER THE SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN (AP) — They stare out at a punishingly unbroken expanse of gray water that seems, at times, to blend into the clouds. Occasionally, they press their foreheads against the plane’s windows so hard they leave grease marks, their eyes darting up and down, left and right, looking for something — anything — that could explain the fate of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

The hunt for Flight 370, which vanished on March 8 during a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, is complicated in just about every way imaginable, from the vastness of the search area to its distance from land to the brutal weather that plagues it. But for all the fancy technology on board the planes and vessels scouring the swirling waters, the best tool searchers have are their own eyes.

Those eyes can spot things man-made equipment cannot. But they are also subject to the peculiarities of the human brain. They can play tricks. They can blink at the wrong moment. They can, and often do, grow weary.

“It is incredibly fatiguing work,” says Flight Lt. Stephen Graham, tactical coordinator for the crew on board a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion that has made six sorties into the southern Indian Ocean search zone. “If it’s bright and glaring obviously sunglasses help, but there’s only so much you can do.”

Search and rescue makes up a small part of what Graham’s squadron does, and visual spotting is an even smaller subset of that. But everyone on board has had to learn how to do it — and it’s not as simple as most people think. Graham learned as part of a yearlong training stint in Canada, further refined his skills during a six-month course in New Zealand and has had ongoing training since.

Crew members have to know what they’re doing, because the electronic equipment on board sometimes doesn’t.

“The P-3 has a lot of really advanced sensors and they’re really useful in our other roles, but for search and rescue, when you can’t guarantee a large or a metallic target, vision is the best that you’ve got,” Graham said at an air base near Perth.

Inside the shadowy confines of New Zealand’s P-3 Orion, the spotters drop into their seats, which they swivel toward the window and inch forward before leaning into the bubble-shaped windows that extend outward from the plane, permitting them to see straight down. When the oils from their skin smudge the window, they wipe away the marks with eyeglass cloths.

There are two spotters on either side of the aircraft. They rest their elbows on a padded shelf, their binoculars sitting at arm’s reach. A small pocket near each window contains safety manuals, paperwork and a handful of barf bags. On at least one particularly bumpy flight, the crew had to use them.

They don’t have to have naturally perfect vision;

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