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Banter keeps up morale among Flight 370 searchers

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Wing commander Rob Shearer captain of the Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion left, and Sgt. Sean Donaldson look out the cockpit windows during search operations for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, near the coast of Western Australia, Friday, April 4, 2014.(AP Photo/Nick Perry/Pool)

Wing commander Rob Shearer captain of the Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion left, and Sgt. Sean Donaldson look out the cockpit windows during search operations for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, near the coast of Western Australia, Friday, April 4, 2014.(AP Photo/Nick Perry/Pool)

Operators monitors TAC stations onboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion during search operations for wreckage and debris of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, near the coast of Western Australia, Friday, April 4, 2014. Ten military planes, four civil jets and nine ships will assist in the search today of 217,000 square kilometers, 1700kmgreat north west of Perth.(AP Photo/Nick Perry/Pool)

Flight Lieutenant Stephen Graham monitors a TAC station onboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion during search operations for wreckage and debris of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, near the coast of Western Australia, Friday, April 4, 2014. Ten military planes, four civil jets and nine ships will assist in the search today of 217,000 square kilometers, 1700kms north west of Perth.(AP Photo/Nick Perry/Pool)

Sgt Sean Donaldson prepares to deploy a smoke marker onboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion during search operations for wreckage and debris of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, near the coast of Western Australia, Friday, April 4, 2014. Ten military planes, four civil jets and nine ships will assist in the search today of 217,000 square kilometers, 1700kms north west of Perth.(AP Photo/Nick Perry/Pool)

An unidentified object is photographed from a monitor onboard a RNZAF P3 Orion during search operations for wreckage and debris of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in southern Indian Ocean, near the coast of Western Australia, Friday, April 4, 2014. Ten military planes, four civil jets and nine ships will assist in the search today of 217,000 square kilometers, 1700kms north west of Perth.(AP Photo/Nick Perry/Pool)

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PERTH, Australia (AP) — After more than four hours flying over the vast, featureless Indian Ocean, the quick-fire banter of a New Zealand crew searching for signs of Flight 370 turns philosophical.

“One of my biggest phobias,” says one of the crew over the headset communication system, “is treading water in the middle of the ocean.”

There’s a pause after that, then a lively discussion about how long it’s possible to survive at sea.

The air force crew, who fly a P-3 Orion turboprop, have been searching for over a week now as part of an international effort to unravel the mystery of the Malaysia Airlines plane that vanished four weeks ago. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Thursday described it as the most difficult search operation ever.

The 12 New Zealanders have the discipline and teamwork that comes with military life, not to mention a slogan: “ready, resilient, respected.” But they also have a kind of folksiness borne of being a small squadron in a tiny air force.

They’ve developed a reputation around Pearce, the base near Perth where the search planes fly from, as being fun, relaxed and responsible for serving up terrific inflight food. That includes freshly roasted meat and sandwiches they toast in two frying pans.

The Orion is nearly 50 years old, although it has been updated many times. Still, it’s nothing like a passenger plane and is filled with rattles and a constant noise that make the headsets necessary.

Their mission can be frustrating at times. The crew doesn’t know exactly what they are looking for, or where they might find it. Most days they’ve spotted objects out in the blue expanse, but so far they’ve turned out to be nothing more than tangled fishing nets or other ocean junk.

“This is the reality of search and rescue and we are used to it,” Flight Lt. Stephen Graham, the tactical coordinator, said Friday. “You just search and search and search. The only way to do it is to start at the most likely place and go from there.”

While there are high-tech cameras on board, it’s the crew’s eyes that are most useful in scanning the horizon. Peering out the windows of the plane, they flick their eyes from whitecap to whitecap and regularly change positions to keep alert. They also continue the headset banter:

“What do you call eye muscles?” asks one.

“Ocular,” comes the response.

“My ocular muscles are getting a real workout.”

“It’s a matter of resilience,” someone else chimes in, echoing their slogan.

“I’ll keep looking till my eyes fall out,” comes the response.

The banter evaporates when one of the crew spots a green object floating just below the surface. It’s similar in size to a surfboard. Others spot more green objects, perhaps a half dozen in all. But as the plane doubles back again and again, circling for 40 minutes, the objects prove maddeningly elusive.

Finally, Sgt. Sean Donaldson is able to get a photo of one of the objects out of a window that’s specially designed to produce undistorted images. Then he fires from the plane a canister that belches smoke.

As the plane takes another pass, tracking the smoke, two crew members latch themselves to the interior of the plane. They pull open the port door and throw a marker buoy overboard, shutting the door tight again in a well-rehearsed maneuver. The idea is that a ship can later use the buoy to locate and identify the object.

The crew look at the photos on a monitor. Probably nothing more than a fishing net, says Donaldson, though it will be up to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the search,

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