Perth: After more than four hours flying over the vast, featureless Indian Ocean, the quick-fire banter of a New Zealand crew searching for signs of Flight 370 turns philosophical.
"One of my biggest phobias," says one of the crew over the headset communication system, "is treading water in the middle of the ocean."
There`s a pause after that, then a lively discussion about how long it`s possible to survive at sea.
The air force crew members, who fly a P-3 Orion turboprop, have been searching for over a week now as part of an international effort to unravel the mystery of the Malaysia Airlines plane that vanished four weeks ago.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Thursday described it as the most difficult search operation ever.
The 12 New Zealanders have the discipline and teamwork that comes with military life, not to mention a slogan: "Ready, resilient, respected." But they also have a kind of folksiness borne of being a small squadron in a tiny air force.
They`ve developed a reputation around Pearce, the base near Perth where the search planes fly from, as being fun, relaxed and responsible for serving up terrific inflight food.
That includes freshly roasted meat and sandwiches they toast in two frying pans.
The Orion is nearly 50 years old, although it has been updated many times. Still, it`s nothing like a passenger plane and is filled with rattles and a constant noise that make the headsets necessary.
Their mission can be frustrating at times. The crew doesn`t know exactly what they are looking for, or where they might find it. Most days they`ve spotted objects out in the blue expanse, but so far they`ve turned out to be nothing more than tangled fishing nets or other ocean junk.
"This is the reality of search and rescue and we are used to it," Flight Lt. Stephen Graham, the tactical coordinator, said yesterday. "You just search and search and search. The only way to do it is to start at the most likely place and go from there."