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!