As the brilliant orange glow of another Australian sunset fades and the raucous engines of the search planes stop whirring, the men and women who keep this high-profile operation in the air switch on the floodlights and get busy.
The ground crews at this air force base near Perth typically work on the tarmac through the night so the planes are ready to fly again by daylight, as the international effort to find some trace of missing Flight 370 continues.
While the pilots at Royal Australian Air Force Base Pearce have been getting plenty of attention – including Australian Flight Lieutenant Russell Adams who quickly became a heartthrob for some in the mould of the movie Top Gun – the ground staff here play an equally vital role.
“We might not get all the limelight,” said Leading Aircraftman Andrew Smith, an aircraft technician who works on the four Australian P-3 Orion planes involved in the search, “but definitely the right people in the right places know and appreciate the work that we do.”
After every flight, the planes need to be refuelled and run through a full inspection. Oils and fluids are topped up, and dangerous equipment aboard, such as smoke locator beacons, are carefully removed and stored in a secure spot. Repairs can range from plugging a minor leak to replacing a propeller assembly.
Something as simple as a clogged air pressure gauge could have a catastrophic effect on a flight, but Smith said they take such responsibility in stride.
“We are trained and briefed all the time not to feel pressure, and to do whatever changes we can in our own time,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of people who will inspect our work after us. And inspect it again.”
Most of the work holds no glamour. Getting rid of the salt spray that can rust a plane, for instance, is similar to washing a car. It requires soap, water and brushes. The only difference is that a crew of 20 needs five solid hours to fully clean a plane, a process they undertake every six weeks.
In all, about 50 ground staff work on the Australian Orions. Crews from other countries involved in the search work on their own planes, which continue to scour the Indian Ocean for signs of debris from the Malaysia Airlines flight that went missing one month ago.
The Australian crew, normally based in the city of Adelaide, don’t have suitable hangars at Pearce. That means all their maintenance is done on the tarmac and in any type of weather. Two-thirds work nights, typically 7pm until 7am, while the lucky ones get to work day shifts.
“One of the big challenges of the deployment so far has been the short notice,” said Squadron Leader Nathan Poyner, the senior engineering officer with the Australians.
“The effect on the guys of saying, ‘OK, we are all going to Perth. Pack your bags, we are leaving tomorrow.’ They have no idea how long they are going to be here.”
Poyner said the crews brought with them enough spare parts to fill three military transport planes. He said the search has offered an unusual opportunity to collaborate with other nations.
“Occasionally they’ve had a request for spare parts, and we’ve been able to help them out, loan them stuff,” he said.
Leading Aircraftman Jason Savage, an avionics technician, said the age of the planes, which date from the late 1960s, but which have been upgraded over the years, means they need to keep a close eye on them.
“Imagine a car that’s 50 years old,” he said. “Absolutely anything can break down.”
Smith said his friends have been asking him for inside details on the search, but he doesn’t have much to tell them, even if he were permitted. They’ve also been wishing him luck, he said, because they want the family and friends of those aboard to get answers and find some closure.
“We may not be famous,” said Savage, “but we certainly do get some good feedback.”