The recent disappearance of adventurer Steve Fossett while piloting his personal plane has caused many persons to ask, "Why can't they find the plane? It really should not be that hard!" There were numerous airborne assets including local, state and federal agencies involved. Is finding a downed plane that hard? Unfortunately, aerial searches are part science and part luck. Hollywood does not help, as the lost hero or victim is always quickly found and recovered in a matter of minutes. Isn't real life that easy as well? Hardly. By far, the greatest disadvantage faced by aerial search crews is a lack of good, solid and credible information as to where the Mr. Fossett might have possibly flown. He left without a flight plan and without talking with air traffic controllers. His purpose for flying that day was to reconnoiter dry lake beds for a location at which he could attempt to set a new land speed record. He would literally be looking at thousands of square miles of land, including crossing some very rugged and very remote terrain. Before you conclude this was reckless on the part of Mr. Fossett, this type of flying is completely legal, safe and is carried out by hundreds of aviators in the United States each and every day. It is a very common and very safe way of flying. In fact, it reminds us of the freedom we actually enjoy in this country. Incredibly, searchers found six aircraft wrecks, three of them previously uncharted. At this writing, the search is still very active and there has been no evidence of Mr. Fossett's plane.
The Crucial Information
Searching by air is not simply flying around randomly and looking for the subject. Aircrews will select, and then fly a search pattern based on the facts and circumstances. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) estimates that a properly selected and flown search pattern should be able to find the subject 90% of the time, if there is accurate and timely information as to where the person was last seen. A properly conducted and coordinated aerial search, using accepted practices and procedures with multiple aircraft, can cover an incredible amount of ground in a short period of time. The critical information is the subject's last known location. This gives aircrews an accurate starting point. Without a doubt, without this most critical information, the search is likely relying on luck. When a ground unit responds to an assignment that might result in an aerial search, such as a lost hiker, lost child or possible drowning, the most beneficial piece of information they can relay to the air crew is where the person was last seen by a reliable and credible witness. Naturally, in situations like these, everyone wants to help and will offer their advice, suggestions and personal opinions. They will say they "think" they saw the person, or offer advice on water currents, offer advice on where they would go if they were lost etc. It is important to quickly locate and interview an eyewitness that can actually offer sound and solid information. "I saw the child 15-20 minutes ago going up what we call the 'back ridge trail' is much better than "If I was lost, I would go to the camp playground."
The Search Patterns
The aircrew will choose a search pattern based on information received from ground sources. There are six types of generally used searches with some variations: vector, trackline, creeping, parallel, creeping square, square, and barrier. Each has its own advantages based on specific information. If, for example, a dinner cruise boat reports a passenger fell overboard and was seen by the crew at a certain spot, a "vector search" is conducted. This is a pattern that focuses on the spot last seen and results in tracking back and forth over the spot where the person was last seen. Using a series of compass headings, the crew eventually flies a complete circle around the victim's last known location, offering an excellent opportunity to recover the victim. Another type of search pattern is known as a "creeping" search. The creeping search is used, for example, when a boater that always fishes in the same spot is now reported overdue. No one actually knows where the boater was fishing that particular day, but the boater's past habits give the searchers a starting point. An example of a trackline search is when JFK Jr.'s plane was reported as missing. His most likely route of flight was known, and therefore the search focused on his probable track and route of flight. In the JFK case, his plane was recovered fairly quickly. The command post must document the actions taken, especially the locations of areas searched to prevent a duplication of efforts. This does not mean an area cannot be re-searched if new information is received, or as a second look. It just allows searchers to base their initial searches on the best information available.
All personnel involved in search & rescue must constantly train to maintain proficiency and competency. The United States Coast Guard has a renowned Search and Rescue School and the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) offers several levels of certification for land searchers. Both of these organizations spend a great deal of time and money training their personnel. All law enforcement agencies can and should make contact with these agencies for potential cross-training opportunities and resources.
Science or Luck?
Although search and rescue is not exactly looking for a needle in the haystack, all searchers know that weather, training and good intelligence are certainly keys to a successful outcome of a search and rescue mission. Searchers will also acknowledge another key: a little luck!