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Double search success for air warfare officer and Orion crew

A Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircrew searching for a missing Kiribati fishing boat had double success when they also found a second missing fishing crew drifting nearby.

30 June, 2022

The Rescue Coordination Centre NZ, on behalf of Rescue Coordination Centre Fiji and Kiribati search and rescue authorities, requested assistance to search for a five-metre yellow-hulled wooden boat which had been reported overdue from a trip from Makin Island to Butaritari Island, Kiribati. 

The boat was carrying two men, a woman and an 11-year-old child.

Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard was preparing to search for another vessel, Woodhaven III, which had been reported missing from Kiribati the previous week with three people on board. 

No. 5 Squadron air warfare officer Flight Lieutenant (FLTLT) Tyler Ngapo said on the morning of the search they were on base by 4am, ready for a 6am take-off. 

The aircraft stopped off at Fiji on the seven-hour flight to the search area, so it could refuel, giving the crew as much time as possible to search.

The large 80 x 80 mile (128x128km) search area meant the team used a radar to look for the small boat. After four hours of looking and reaching nearly the end of the search area, the aircrew spotted the Woodhaven III. 

“The mood was pretty good in the aircraft. Everyone was pretty excited. You have to remember we were on base at 4am and by the time we found them it was about 5pm, so we’d already been at work for 12 hours by that point,” FLTLT Ngapo said. 

“Normally about the four-hour point people are starting to feel a bit low, so we really wanted to find them - you always hope you’ll find them straight away. So everyone was pretty excited when we found something.”

The aircrew knew the US Coast Guard was searching for the vessel, but their search area was about 150 nautical miles further to the west, so the New Zealand crew weren’t expecting to find them in their area and especially that close, FLTLT Ngapo said.

The job was not over though as the boat the crew was initially looking for still had not been found. 

“We were climbing up to find a boat that could rescue the vessel we had just found and, about 10 minutes later as we were just heading a little to the south, we detected about 10 nautical miles away another vessel and saw it was something small, so we thought we’d go and have a look and that was the other vessel.” 

The success of finding the vessel was extra special for the crew, he said.

"It’s pretty hard when you read the request for the search and you see an 11-year-old girl. It doesn’t really change anything we do or how we do it, but it hits home a bit harder and feels a bit different when there is a child involved.”

The crew dropped survival kits with water, chocolate and locator beacons to those on board.

“We added the chocolate because we figured they probably haven’t eaten for a few days. Then we called the Rescue Coordination Centre in New Zealand and talked with a couple of boats on the radio to get them to go and pick them up. Both were picked up overnight.

“When I woke up the next morning and saw the email they had been picked up successfully and they were all safe it was a good feeling. You can’t beat saving people,” FLTLT Ngapo said.