Saturday, September 17, 2005

First Search and Rescue Mission

Today I flew my first search and rescue mission for the Civil Air Patrol. It was just an exercise, so while there wasn't really anyone in danger, the operation was conducted as if there were. I flew in the Mission Scanner position, which means that it's my responsibility to actually spot the downed aircraft as well as take photos and direct ground teams to the crash site.

Let me just say, my crew rocks.

The scenario was basically that a student pilot from Flagstaff was on a cross-country flight to Deer Valley airport, just north of Phoenix (and also the site of Mission Base). She landed at Deer Valley, got her logbook endorsed, and took off for Flagstaff. She never arrived. Her mother alerted the authorities, and an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) signal was detected by the Search and Rescue Satellite (SARSAT) somewhere in the mountains north of Phoenix. Mission Base had launched an aircraft to the area early this morning, but after nearly two hours of searching, they hadn't been able to find the downed plane. We were launched from our home base in Goodyear (west of Phoenix) about 9:45 this morning. We flew directly to the search grid and began our survey. The pilot and the observer (CAP's name for the co-pilot) could hear the ELT, but the direction finding needle wasn't giving good readings (it wasn't telling them which way to go). ELT signals are never very precise, but it should have been better than this. If we dipped the wing in a certain direction, we'd lose the ELT signal, so we knew the ELT had to be somewhere in the general direction of the wing. We were on station less than 10 minutes when I spotted the aircraft smashed into a hillside. I got the pilot and observer's attention and directed them back to where I had seen the plane (through an unrelated problem, the intercom was out in the back of the plane, so I was reduced to using hand signals). I got out the camera and got some good shots of the condition of the wreck as well as the ingress/egress path for the ground team. We headed to Mission Base at Deer Valley for debriefing and to download our photos into their computers. They were all amazed that we picked up the site so quickly. I seem have developed a reputation as "Eagle Eye." :) Once I get the photos up on the web, I'll post a link to them.

We had some lunch, got the intercom fixed, and took off for a second mission. This was a counter-terrorism photo recon mission. The scenario was basically that terrorists had taken over and were operating out of Wickenburg airport (northwest of Phoenix), so we were to approach out of the mountains and photograph the airfield for analysis. This was a pretty simple mission, since obviously we knew where the airport was! The trick was to get in, get the photos, and get out as quickly as possible (since presumably the terrorists would be taking pot shots at us). To speed up the photo-taking, I would call out when I was taking a picture, along with the frame number. The pilot would call out our current heading and altitude (necessary for making measurements from the recon photos), and the observer would log all the data. We were in and out in under three minutes. None too shabby!

I needed to get two missions in to complete my Mission Scanner qualification, so I was pleased we were able to fly two (most crews only fly one, but our squadron only had one crew available to send, so we took on another one). If there is an actual emergency (search and rescue, disaster, etc.), I'm now qualified to fly the mission. CAP doesn't allow trainees on real missions, for the very good reason that people's lives are at stake. It's a good feeling to know that I'm now at the point where I can do some good for people in trouble. CAP has logged over 10,000 man-hours in the air and on the ground with Katrina disaster relief. While Arizona isn't likely to get a hurricane, forest fires are a real issue here. And, of course, there's always the counter-drug and counter-terrorism missions, which are increasingly important for a border state such as ours.

This is just the kind of real-world experiences every writer should have if he wants to write convincing fiction! I got home exhausted at 6 PM, but I'm still feeling totally psyched from the experience. You can't ask for much more than that!

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