Airborne Search and Rescue

When first response agencies are tasked with searching for persons, regardless if the location is water or land, aerial resources are a wonderful asset. Aircraft are able to cover a fairly large area quickly including search areas inaccessible by ground units. However, are the aircraft searching just flying around looking for a needle in a haystack?

Not according to the United States Coast Guard (USCG) which is the lead agency for maritime searches. (The US Air Force, primarily through the CAP program is the lead agency for land searches). The USCG estimates that if the initial reporting information is good, the chances of finding a victim of a maritime search by flying a proper search pattern approaches 90% success. What does that mean for the first responders on the scene? The last known position of the victim is crucial for a successful outcome. The initial interviews of bystanders and witnesses not only affect the success of the search it will often determine what search pattern the aircraft will use in their search efforts. The actions of the ground responders will often mean the difference between life and death.

Search Patterns

Aerial law enforcement aircraft use several rescue patterns, depending on the circumstances of the incident, to search for victims. The patterns, flown in a systematic and logical order, insure that the entire search area is covered effectively. For example, if a boat is on fire, and several persons jump into the water to escape the flames, there is a very good chance that the victims are nearby. The responding aerial units will likely commence what is known as a sector search. This search would likely use the boat as its reference point and the aircraft flies a series of search legs, crossing over the reference point several times.

Earlier this month, six teenagers drowned in a river near Shreveport, La. Apparently the teens were in shallow water when one of them slipped into deeper water. The other teens, in an attempt to help rescue their friend, all fell into the deeper water and drowned. This type of incident would call for a sector search. The last position of the teens was known, and an aerial unit would want to quickly locate the victims.

If the victims are lost in a moving river, the aerial units will likely choose a barrier search pattern. The barrier search establishes a search point upstream or downstream, depending on the current and flies back and forth across the river searching for the victims. The theory is that the victim would float past the barrier and be seen by the rescuers.

For searches of an area with a known route, such as an aircraft flying between two airports would necessitate a track line search of the aircrafts expected path. In 1999, when JFK JR’s airplane went missing, a track line search would have been appropriate.

Different search patterns are selected for incidents with little or no information. On Long Island, a boat washed ashore at Lloyd Harbor with no one on board but with blood stains everywhere. The responding units, lacking any additional information likely used a creep pattern that allows fairly large areas to be searched effectively. The creep pattern flies search legs in a back and forth pattern creeping along the search area. Once again, any additional factors influence the exact search pattern selected. Once a search pattern is selected, the flight crew will augment their efforts with appropriate equipment such as night vision goggles and forward looking infrared. It should be noted however that FLIR cannot see through water. If the victim is submerged, by even a few inches, they will not appear on the FLIR monitor of the aircraft. That is why personal flotation devices are very important!

The challenges of an aerial search can be daunting. Factors such as sea state, surface visibility and even the fatigue of the flight crew can dramatically impact the effectiveness of the search. A lone person floating in the water presents a very small target and sometimes a person cannot be seen until the aircraft is almost directly overhead. If the sea state is rough, it becomes even harder to see a victim and an aerial unit must tighten their search tracks to take into account the rougher water.

The ability to search has been greatly enhanced by the use of technology. The United States Coast Guard uses a computer program to help determine their search area and likely location of a victim. This program, known as computer assisted search planning (CASP) uses a variety of factors including tides, current weather and expected drift of the victim to designate a search pattern. When a passenger fell off a cruise ship near Florida, the CASP program predicted the most likely spot where the victim would be hours later. The victim was found in the exact grid predicted by the program. This allows not only a greater ability to save lives, it also allows for better allocation of resources.

The Incident Commander

The Incident Commander should make certain the search areas are documented. After initial searches are completed, it might be determined that secondary searches should be conducted. This is no reflection on the ability of the initial searchers. It recognizes the difficulty of these searches and the fatigue of the crew. Other concerns of the incident commander should include a helispot (landing zone) and refueling capabilities of aircraft. Precious search time can be lost if the aircraft must fly a considerable distance to refuel. If the incident requires, the establishment of an air operations branch can make aerial operations much easier and effective.

Search incidents often have significant challenges. Obviously, the quick location and medical treatment of the victims, if necessary, are crucial to the successful outcome of the search and rescue mission. The successful and effective coordination between ground and aerial units can make the difference between life and death!