BUTTERWORTH: IT was a combination of dogged Aussie persistence and blind luck that resulted in the discovery of MT Orkim Harmony.
The crew members of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-3C Orion (call sign “Sealion”) from 92 Wing that caught the much-needed break in the search for the hijacked tanker sat down with the New Straits Times at the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) base here moments before sortieing back to their home base at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide at the end of their deployment here.
With the sound of four turboprops spooling in the background and crew members loading gear for their trip home, the pilot and squadron executive officer detailed how the search went.
“We were tasked with a normal Gateway sortie (normal maritime patrol tasking, staging from RMAF Butterworth) and were asked to give assistance to Malaysia to find the vessel.
“We went to the area, but it was not there. We still had some more time on station, so we decided to go further north and that’s when we found it,” said aircraft commander and pilot Flight Lieutenant Adam Steff, 36.
By then, the Orion was at the edge of its loiter time. The four Allison turboprops were practically running on fumes. The fuel state was so low that the crew could only afford one pass before reaching “Bingo” fuel, which is the point when they had to return to base because of fuel limitations.
“We found it with just five minutes more time on station. Weather was also difficult. We found her, passed the information to Malaysian authorities and headed home,” said sensor manager and squadron executive officer, or XO, Squadron Leader Peter Knox, 50.
RAAF Orions are packed with a sophisticated array of sensors, ranging from a very capable search radar that can distinguish targets against surface or sea clutter, an electro-optical sensor suite, including forward-looking infra-red housed in a turret, TV and video, to a magnetic anomaly detector, housed in a “stinger”, or boom, on the tail of the aircraft.
All the sensors are integrated and processed, and data is interpreted by sensor operators using a bank of terminals inside the aircraft. Typically, RAAF Orions fly with 16 on board.
Knox said the first acquisition was by radar.
The crew’s tasking was for an area in the South China Sea, in the Gulf of Thailand.
So, what made them head further north?
“Well, we knew the Malaysians were searching further south, so it just made sense for us to search further north to expand the search area,” said Steff.
The pirates had changed how the ship looked like by painting over a portion of its name on the bow and stern. How the RAAF crew managed to identify the ship took another stroke of luck and 20/20 vision.
“That was the difficult bit because we actually passed it first and continued north. We had a few minutes left, so we went back to where we passed it again and looked at it more closely. That’s when we realised they had changed the name,” said Knox.
The time it took for them to turn around to take a second look at the ship was about 45 minutes. The area was littered with between 20 and 25 larger ships and a lot of fishing boats.
After the initial acquisition, Steff rolled in and took the huge aircraft down to about 500 feet to get a closer look. Spotters on board the aircraft shot frame after frame of high-definition digital images from transparent blisters mounted on the sides of the aircraft.
At the time, Orkim Harmony was steaming at about five knots. A ship’s normal speed is between 10 and 12 knots.
“I didn’t see anyone on the boat. We only went past it and took photographs of the ship, which is probably a good thing because we did not want them to be alerted to the fact that we had found them.
“Plus, we didn’t want to spook them and wanted to give Malaysian authorities a better-than-even chance of recovering the ship,” said Knox, adding that Malaysian assets “were working south of us”.
“We were not sure how many hours it would take them to reach the vessel. Initially, we weren’t sure that it was the Harmony, but when we took a closer look, we could see that the ship had actually been painted on top... from Orkim Harmony to Kim Harmon. When we found it... yeah... we were very happy, especially because we had almost run out of fuel.”
As to whether it could have been a legitimate ship named Kim Harmon, Knox laughed, shook his head and said: “We knew it wasn’t. It just made sense and you could almost see the oil that had been painted over. You could actually see the paint job all the way from the aircraft and from other ships. It was probably good enough.”
The crew had been airborne for close to eight hours when they spotted Orkim Harmony. The Orion’s endurance is between 10 and 11 hours.