With minutes to go before taking off, a senior Coast Guard officer expressed a grouse that many in the force have nursed. “People made peace with the disappearance of the MH370 but won’t accept that the debris of a burnt, fishing boat which sank is not traceable,” he said. Inside the Coast Guard Air Enclave at Porbandar, the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) is flying 225 nautical miles close to the notional maritime boundary line dividing India and Pakistan to retrieve evidence of the terror boat. Not just that, a vessel is also being maintained towards the same.
At 1400hours the sortie of Dornier aircraft belonging to the 746 squadron of the ICG, its second youngest, is about to commence for a patrol cum retrieval of debris/bodies. The destination is 225 nautical miles (416 km approx) south west from Porbandar, where the latest search zone has been designated. It is a task which continues to consume these men since 9am on the December 31 when the first input came. The team from Airports Authority of India (AAI) which operates the aerodrome till 5pm on normal days worked till 3am on January 1. “We closed the airfield only by 4am once all the ICG planes returned,” said an official.
“Spotting and tracking the boat till the very end was once in a lifetime experience. We were very happy about how it went,” said an officer who was a part of the team.
With the approval of the Air Traffic Controller at Porbandar, the Dornier takes to the skies. Flying at top speed of 400kmph, it will take the twin engine turboprop 75 minutes to reach the zone followed by 90 minutes of search before it can resume its return journey. Inside the air conditioned cabin, moving around is tedious as the width is hardly 4 feet and height is around 5 feet. “So far off into the sea you never see a fishing boat. Fishing never happens there. That this was present and there was an input about it nailed it for us,” said a crew member. Flight climbed upwards of 8000 ft before gaining its cruising speed. The navigator begins a scan. Every move he makes is mapped and saved. On his radar emerges a circle with multiple dots. He indicates they are vessels at sea, big and small. “Nothing if it is on the surface of the sea will escape my watch,” he mentioned.
As the cursor is taken to a dot, the hardbook kept adjoining reveals all details of that ship using Automatic Identification System (AIS). The relationship between the navigator and pilot is best represented by that between the mind and limbs, the former determines and the latter works towards executing the same.
The Dornier, a crew member states is fitted with sensors which can pick contacts over 200km away and cameras which can pick up images 15 km away, including Infra Red (IR), it can do day and night operations and is the Coast Guard’s best bet. The Porbandar enclave, activated in February 2012, serves as an ideal springboard for maintaining a hawk eye over the troublesome neighbour. The ICG has 24 Dornier aircraft for tasks like reconnaissance, casualty evacuation, logistics, pollution response and security of oilrigs.
As the aircraft approaches the search zone, it descends and establishes contact with ICG ship Rajratan, an Inshore Patrol Vessel (IPV) using a Very High Frequency (VHF) set. Incidentally, ICGS Rajratan was the one which intercepted the Pakistani fishing boat. The pilots and navigators get a brief about the local conditions based on which a course is charted within the zone.
Fifteen minutes into the search, when the aircraft is flying hardly 1000 ft above the sea, the navigators pick up something. It was the sensor that led them there. Debris, possibly from the fishing boat, has been spotted. On closer look, brown floating objects are visible. “It is the first time we are sighting anything at all,” said a crew member. Immediately, the ship is told ‘Divert, reach the spot and investigate’.
A couple of passes more over the area and it is time to head back.
There is joy inside the pressurized compartment. The ship will take atleast a day to reach the location and investigate but their sortie has given a fresh lease to the effort.
On the ground, before the crew melted away for de-brief, an officer said, “It was a fishing boat made out of wood which burnt. We will be lucky if we retrieve the debris. But here is a question you can ask those doubting us. How many of those doubting us have been at sea when it is rough and tried to apprehend a fishing boat?”