A search for hope
When Air Asia flight QZ8501 went down in the Java Sea, Singapore lent a handto the international search for answers, and closure.
By Clara Lock
Photos by Terence Tan, Kenneth Lin
Every man and woman deployed on search operations for Air Asia flight QZ8501 scrapped plans when they were activated.
SLTC Chow Khim Chong, who led the underwater search operations from MV Swift Rescue, was awaiting his father’s surgery the next day; ME2 Daniel Liao, Chief of the Fast Craft department on landing ship tank (LST) RSS Persistence had barely been married three days.
There were missed birthdays and wedding anniversaries, newborn babies and young children waiting at home, aged parents alone on New Year’s Eve.
But for more than 400 Singapore Armed Forces personnel deployed on this mission there was no sense of longing when they spoke of their loved ones back home, only a clear-eyed focus on the task at hand.
They were there to do a job. It was what they signed up for.
A frigate, RSS Supreme and a missile corvette RSS Valour were deployed on 28 December 2014, the same day Air Asia flight QZ8501 went missing. RSS Persistence departed the next day with two Super Puma helicopters embarked.
Over the next three days, mine countermeasure vessel (MCMV) RSS Kallang and submarine rescue vessel MV Swift Rescue joined the operation. MV Swift Rescue had both a dive team and an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle team embarked, the latter flown in to enhance the underwater search.
There are rough templates that search operations are based upon, standard operating procedures refined over the years. But the specific needs of each search vary, and so must the responses.
Every day, all ships received instructions from Indonesian search and rescue agency BARSANAS, which was coordinating the international search effort. This determined the search area that each ship would cover.
For the Super Puma air detachment, which regularly conducts rescue operations within Singapore waters, executing the search was a matter of stringing together the elements of their training that were relevant to this operation.
These included planning and flying search patterns, winching, and takeoff and landing procedures on the LST’s flight deck.
“This mission reinforces the tough and realistic training that we go through regularly,” says pilot CPT Ryan Tan, who was second in command of the air detachment.
In a search operation speed is of the essence. When the first ships made their way towards the assigned search sector in the Java Sea, their transit was tinged with hope – of finding survivors, of salvaging life from the wreckage of the missing plane.
As the days wore on, and the odds of finding survivors grew slimmer, the task became a bit more grim.
Finding debris – a life raft, a window panel, a compressed air cylinder – offered clues to what happened after the plane lost contact with air traffic control.
But pulling up pieces of metal and plastic was far less personal than recovering human remains.
When craft coxswain from the Fast Craft Training Unit (FCTU) ME3 Max Yeo leads a team to retrieve a body from the side door of RSS Persistence, many of the crew involved have never had death stare them so starkly in the face.
“I told my guys that no matter what we face, we want to bring closure to at least one family,” said ME3 Yeo.
If there was fear, it was secondary to their purpose. They all wanted to retrieve the body and bring it home.
Later a Super Puma helicopter flew the body to Pangkalan Bun, a town in central Kalimantan, where it was handed over to BARSANAS.
From here the Indonesian authorities took over – to identify the deceased and then inform their family. There would be grief, prayers and burial rites.
This is where certainty takes over, and closure begins.
Fighting the tide
In the face of tragedy we are often reminded of the power of nature. When the plane crashed, the ocean scattered it asunder, ripping it apart with the force and fury of the monsoon season and its accompanying tides.
The men and women involved in the search faced the same difficulty, with many days of the search marked by rain and winds. Sea state, a function of wind and swell height that indicates the choppiness of the ocean, regularly hit three and occasionally climbed to four, with waves as high as three metres.
It was particularly rough for RSS Kallang, one of the smallest RSN ships involved in the search effort. It usually operates in the Singapore Strait where the wave height rarely exceeds half a metre.
“Underwater search operations are dependent on the water conditions and the weather,” said CPT Koh Wee Seng, Operations Officer of RSS Kallang, who added that the rough seas were a challenge to their search effort.
Rough seas or not, work continued. Medical Officer CPT (Dr) Sim Wei Ping doled out the seasick pills, and the sailors pressed on. Their job, together with MV Swift Rescue, was to use the data gathered by the underwater sensor and Remotely Operated Vehicle to find fuselage and the black box from the crash.
17 days after the crash, the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) on MV Swift Rescue captured underwater footage of the wreckage.
The red body of the plane had Air Asia’s slogan – Now everyone can fly – emblazoned across it in white. The main fuselage panned across the monitor in MV Swift Rescue’s bridge and ROV operations room.
As the crew gathered on the bridge to view this footage, their somber mood was mirrored in news reports around the region that confirmed the fate of flight QZ8501.
It had been 17 days since the crash, and 16 since the ship had been at sea.
Keep calm and carry on
When they answered the call of duty, none of the servicemen knew how long the deployment would last, only that they would be there as long as it took.
“People fall back on buttresses of support,” said Dr Abhiram, the medical officer on board RSS Persistence.
For the old hands – cluster chiefs, coxswains, and supervisors – their strength comes from bolstering the morale of their men.
“I’m always thinking about what my guys are feeling, and what they are going through,” said FCTU craft coxswain ME3 Yeo.
Then there are those who are driven by their thoughts of home, and how they could possibly offer this comfort to another family. It is inevitable for the crew to wonder – what if it had been my loved one on that plane?
“If you had lost someone, you would hope that anyone doing a search operation would be doing their best to find something,” said 3SG Goh Zhe Wen, an air crew specialist from the Super Puma detachment.
“Every time I fly, I’m hoping the next thing I see is a living person.” - 3SG Goh Zhe Wen
So the men and women pushed on, keeping their eyes on the water; from the sky; beneath the waves.
They knew they were the lucky ones. They would have a homecoming.
When that happened – MV Swift Rescue was the last ship to return, after 20 days at sea, they picked up daily life where they left off. There were spouses waiting with open arms, young children waiting for a hug, parents relieved at their child’s safe return.
The next day the servicemen were back on standby, on alert, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
They have a job to do. It is, after all, what they signed up for.