Skip to main content

Ocean Shield: A mission of hope and uncertainty in search for Flight 370

By Will Ripley and David Molko, CNN
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
  • An Australia ship has left port to try to locate "pings" from missing airliner MH370
  • Some see it as the best hope of finding the vanished Malaysia Airlines flight
  • It carries state-of-the-art equipment to detect pings from the black boxes
  • But man in charge of the gear says it is no use unless search area can be narrowed

Off Garden Island, Australia (CNN) -- Docked at the largest naval base in Western Australia Monday is a ship with a bright red hull and the weight of the world resting on the shoulders of its 30-member crew.

To some, the ship represents their only chance at closure after the disappearance of loved ones on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

To others, it's the best chance of solving one of the greatest mysteries in modern aviation.

READ: MH370 search could 'drag on for a very long time'

The Australian Defense Vessel Ocean Shield leaves port for the suspected Flight 370 search zone, bringing sophisticated equipment to listen for the flight data recorder's locator beacon. The Australian Defense Vessel Ocean Shield leaves port for the suspected Flight 370 search zone, bringing sophisticated equipment to listen for the flight data recorder's locator beacon.
Listening for pings in the ocean
Images: Listening for pings Images: Listening for pings
Looking to past for Flight 370 answers

Departing just after sunset, the Australian Defense Vessel Ocean Shield sets out to the search zone in the southern Indian Ocean, one of the most remote places on Earth, some 1,100 miles off the coast of Western Australia.

It will take three days just to get to this corner of the world, where waves are taller than many buildings, and the seas conceal mountain ranges.

CNN asked to ride with the crew of the Ocean Shield to document their journey. But the mission is too long and too important to allow for the added burden of carrying journalists onboard.

Anxious wait

So we sit in a chartered fishing boat named Thunder and wait anxiously for the Ocean Shield to begin its journey. Our expectation of a Monday morning departure is quickly dashed. So we wait on the water, watching the boat and filing hourly live updates. The 6:30pm departure time is pushed back an hour. At 7:30pm, the ship still sits at the dock.

The Ocean Shield finally departs just before 8pm, cloaked in darkness, only its deck lights guiding the way from Garden Island, out of Cockburn Sound, and into the Indian Ocean.

We watch as the Ocean Shield makes its way up the narrow channel headed for the open sea, traveling so fast our 60-foot fishing boat can't keep up.

"We started out, he was running about 8 to 10 knots and started picking up speed," says our captain, Ray Ruby. "I think by the time he was doing about 15 knots we were still in the channel."

Battery race

Clock ticking on search for Flight 370
Officials revise last words from MH370

And there's a reason that the team aboard the Ocean Shield is in a hurry. The batteries on the underwater locator beacons, or pingers, attached to the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder have less than a week before they're set to expire. And these crew members are the only ones equipped to find them. They carry the latest technology from the U.S. Navy, including a towed pinger locator, or TPL-25, a giant underwater microphone that will listen for the pings from the black boxes. Then there's the Bluefin-21, an underwater robot that can scour the ocean bed, looking for signs of wreckage.

But there's a problem. More than three weeks after MH370 is believed to have gone down in the southern Indian Ocean, no wreckage has been sighted. And that means the team aboard the Ocean Shield doesn't know where to look.

"No matter how specialized or sophisticated this equipment is, it won't do any good unless that search zone can be narrowed," says Commander Mark Matthews of the U.S. Navy, in charge of the 11-person team on board who will operate the TPL-25 and Bluefin-21.

Matthews says in order to have a hope of hearing the pingers, the search area needs to be reduced from more than 100,000 square miles (259,000 square kilometers) to less than 1,000 (2,590). And the only way to do that is for search teams to find and confirm debris from the airliner, and to use computer models that can trace back currents and conditions and help pinpoint where the plane went down.


No matter how specialized or sophisticated this equipment is, it won't do any good unless that search zone can be narrowed.
Commander Mark Matthews

But with each new day in the search zone, and each new discovery, comes new disappointment. Objects sighted by search aircraft and pulled from the ocean have no link to the missing airliner. And while the water is like glass here in Cockburn Sound and the waters are less than 100 feet deep, out in the search zone, it's 14,000 feet to the bottom, with conditions that are some of most punishing on the planet.

As the Ocean Shield opens up its throttle, we try to keep its striking red hull in sight, hoping to follow it on its mission for as long as we can. But then, a nearby vessel flashes an S.O.S. signal with its spotlight. Our captain makes the call to divert and try to help. "Tomorrow it could be me," Ruby says. We pull alongside, where we learn another charter boat has blown its engine in the middle of a busy shipping lane.

As we tow the boat to safety, the Ocean Shield disappears on the horizon, closing the gap in its search for MH370. Perhaps a few miles closer to finding even the smallest bit of closure for the families of the missing. And answers for the rest of the world.

READ: Families of newlyweds still waiting

READ: Full cockpit transcript

READ: Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 surfaces pain of 1977 tragedy

Part of complete coverage on
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
The search for MH370 is moving to an area farther south in the Indian Ocean, said the Australian Deputy Prime Minister.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 0033 GMT (0833 HKT)
Erin Burnett speaks to Miles O'Brien about the latest in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
June 18, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Ten experts say that the search for MH370 should move hundreds of miles away from the previous search area.
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Families are desperate for results as the search for MH370 reaches a grim milestone. Anna Coren reports from Beijing.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Relatives of passengers are launching an effort to raise $5 million for investigations and a "whistle blower" reward.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 0731 GMT (1531 HKT)
Making sure another plane is never "lost" again is the immediate priority for the airline industry.
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 1536 GMT (2336 HKT)
This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.
Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2229 GMT (0629 HKT)
What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2105 GMT (0505 HKT)
Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
There is one fundamental question which continues to swirl: Has Inmarsat got its numbers right?
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1213 GMT (2013 HKT)
Data from communications between satellites and missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was released
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 0742 GMT (1542 HKT)
Family members of the people aboard missing plane want independent investigators to review the newly released satellite data.
May 21, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
CNN's Richard Quest explains what kind of information should be contained in the Inmarsat data from Flight MH370.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
May 6, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.