OVER THE INDIAN OCEAN, March 17, 2014 -- The USS Kidd is ending its search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet in a few days, Defense Department officials said today.
The destroyer was rushed to the Strait of Malacca off the west coast of Malaysia last week after flight MH370 vanished and following the first indications that the jetliner had abandoned its northern flight path to Beijing and had abruptly turned west. The ship carried helicopters that could expand the ship's reach.
The Kidd will resume its search on Tuesday northwest of the Strait of Malacca during daylight hours. It's not clear when it will leave the Strait of Malacca and resume its normal naval deployment.
A Defense Department official indicated that U.S. Navy search planes looking for the missing jetliner have much greater search ranges than a ship. A P3 Orion plane will move its base to Phuket, Thailand, and a P8 plane will be deployed to Perth, Australia, and conducts its search from there.
“This is in no way a degradation of the mission,” a Defense official told ABC News. “We’re fully committed to the search operation and the fixed wing aircraft remains and is being shifted to a search area that’s more conducive to aerial reconnaissance as opposed to surface searching.”
The range of the search planes was demonstrated today as ABC News flew with a Navy P3 Orion plane - bristling with surveillance gear - as it patrolled over the endless expanse of the Indian Ocean on a mission west of Indonesia today as part of the massive search for the missing jetliner.
The Orion's crew, part of the U.S. Navy 7th Fleet's "Grey Knights" squadron, has been scouring the ocean inch by inch for up to 11 hours a day since last week. Today alone the Orion and its crew covered 54,000 square nautical miles.
Lt. Erica Ross directed the plane's search for the first part of today's flight, scanning the ocean's surface with her own two eyes and analyzing radar data to guide the plane's aerial investigation. When she spotted something worth looking into, she directed the plane to drop to as low as 200 feet above the surface of the ocean so the crew could document the image and send it back to base for record keeping and analysis.
"We are just trying to identify anything we see out there that is giving us a radar return, such as a metal object or a ship like that, get our eyes on it, get a visual return and continue our search until we find something," Petty Officer Aaron Eller told ABC News. "Any type of debris, oil, anything that might indicate that there was an airplane, that was in the area or actually crashed in the water."
The plane, deployed from Okinawa on Sunday, has been relying primarily on radar, but is equipped with additional powerful surveillance gear.
The aircraft's "acoustic suites" are able to detect sound 1,000 feet under the ocean's surface, but detecting a signal from MH370's black box would difficult because the high volume and noisy ship traffic in the Straits of Malacca.
"We have the capability to possibility find it, but it would have to be in shallow water to find it with what we have," Eller said.
Three cameras are also on board the Orion beneath the landing gear and are capable of zooming in for extreme close-ups if something on the surface of the water looked like it could have come from the plane.
In addition, the Orion is equipped with infrared to find anything giving off heat as well as an infared camera which can search in the dark.
Inside the Orion, techs monitor each camera's feedback, quickly zeroing in on anything that catches the attention of radar, acoustics or the cameras - only to reveal floating trash or a fishing boat.
It is tedious, exhausting work.
“The effort comes from us knowing that we are trying to help people, possibly save lives, find where this plane is, just to bring closure to what is going on with the situation,” Eller said.
Finding the plane, he said, would be "awesome."
“I know it would be awesome for the people who have loved ones on the plane, just to get an idea of what happened. I know the world wants to know what happened to the plane, so it would be a very rewarding feeling to find that aircraft."
Petty Officer Brandon Bornec added, “I would be overwhelmed with joy. I can only imagine what the families would be feeling at home. That is the whole reason we are here right now."
The P3 Orion is assisted by the P8 aircraft, an more modern and sophisticated airplane that is intended to replace the fleet of P3 Orions over the next few years.