Monday, January 02, 2006

Real Life: Search and Rescue

I got a call this morning from my Civil Air Patrol squadron's operations officer. A plane was due to arrive in at one of the outlying Phoenix airports on New Year's Eve, but he never arrived. We launched about 8:00 this morning to join the search operations. The pilot had called his friend in Phoenix on his cell phone about 8:00 PM, and disappeared from radar shortly thereafter. One of our CAP planes flew the route, and he also disappeared from radar about the same time, so likely what happened was the plane simply fell in the radar shadow of the mountains (and this is extremely rugged country). The pilot of the missing plane had reported strong headwinds and was descending. Now, he was a "low-time pilot," which is a nice way of saying he was a rookie. The odds are he was not very familiar with Arizona's mountain country ("Isn't it all desert?") -- even experienced pilots don't fly through there at night. There are no lights to give you a horizon, and it is very easy to simply fly into a mountain -- they are virtually invisible in the dark. Few people in our modern age appreciate just how dark it gets without city lights everywhere. No emergency locator transmitter signal was detected, so either a) the batteries on the ELT were dead (unlikely, but possible), or b) he hit so hard that the impact destroyed the ELT along with the plane (which happens). If the latter, then what we are looking for is a body to give closure to his family. Still, people have survived stranger things, and we don't know that was what happened, so there's still hope.

I flew two very long, very grueling missions. Search and rescue is not as simple as watching out the window while you fly. It's actually very difficult to force yourself to focus your attention on specific areas on the ground (I use a four-spot, four-second repeating pattern). There were a lot of forests and gullies that could hide an airplane, and we were about 1000 feet above the ground. If your attention wanders, you could overlook a huge area without even realizing it. It's exhausting to maintain that level of concentration for four solid hours, all the while you're bouncing up and down from the turbulence that always occurs in the mountains.

If I saw an area that looked suspicious, we'd circle around it until we could identify it. There were a number of those, but none of them panned out. Still, it was better to be sure than to get home and wonder if maybe you missed something. And that's the real dichotomy here. You know that the odds of the polane being in your grid are low. You know that the odds of your finding him even if he is there are even lower. Yet if you let your mind wander from the task at hand, someone may literally die. You know that at the end of the day, you're probably going to go home tired and frustrated and worried. The guy's chance of survival goes down with each hour he is missing. There's a huge sense of responsibility when you are workingn as emergency services personnel.

And, of course, you want to be the one to find him. Who wouldn't want to be the hero? You don't want to let ego get in the way of the important thing -- finding the pilot -- so you're constantly at war with your already-frayed emotions: I want the other crews to find him quickly, but I want to find him first. Given your already stressed psychological state, it can be an issue that's difficult to put aside.

I'm home now and I'm exhausted. I have 24 hours of crew rest before I can be called up again, and that's a good thing. You must be fresh and sharp to do this job, because your effectiveness goes down as your fatigue goes up. You owe it to the guy to have the best crews in the air. They may call off the search by Wednesday, but I hope they find him tomorrow.

Sometimes we never find them.

No comments: