CAP teams narrow search for Idaho crash site

When a single engine plane goes down in the continental U.S., Civil Air Patrol’s cell phone and radar tracking experts are certain to be involved. Their mission — reduce the search area from thousands of square miles to the actual crash site or within a couple of square miles –—is urgent, because reducing the crash-to-rescue time saves lives.

Searchers for a single-engine airplane believed downed in snowy, mountainous central Idaho are relying on CAP’s cutting-edge radar analysis as they try to find the California family of five aboard the missing Beech Bonanza.

Piloted by Dale Smith of San Jose, Calif., and carrying his son, his son’s wife, his daughter and her fiancé, the Bonanza was bound from Baker City, Ore, to Butte, Mont.

Lt. Col. John Henderson of CAP’s 10-member National Radar Analysis Team was able to detect and map the plane’s radar track until just before the aircraft apparently began its descent Sunday.

The Radar Analysis Team worked hand-in-hand with CAP’s two-man Cell Phone Forensics Team, and everyone’s analysis of the clues and data led to the same conclusions.

“The cell phone data stopped about a minute before the plane dropped off of radar,” said Maj. Justin Ogden, a CAP cell phone forensics expert. “Our data correlated with the radar analysis team’s regarding the plane’s location at that time.”

CAP’s radar analysis track record is impressive.

“It can be extremely accurate,” said Henderson. “Over 90% of the time we narrow the search area based on forensics information. We’ve come within 65 feet of where a crash occurred and sometimes miles. It depends on the radar environment.”

This is an example of the radar forensics product produced by CAP’s National Radar Analysis Team. The green and red dots indicate different types of radar signals.

In 13 years, Henderson estimated, he’s participated in more than 600 missions with “well over 150 finds” and about 45 lives saved — but the Idaho mission involves some serious obstacles.

The Bonanza was flying above extremely rugged, snow-covered terrain, both elements that can interfere with radar tracking. As a result, the track ended when it was still “well above ground,” said Henderson, a CAP volunteer member for more than 20 years.

That means the plane “could have traveled miles” before landing, he said. “We just don’t know what he did after we lost radar coverage.”

“How he crashed and the snowfall are huge factors,” he said, adding, “the snowfall can cover the crash site.”

Without radar analysis or cell phone forensics searches for a downed plane can prove daunting. “Pilots would be just flying around trying to spot wreckage,” Henderson said.

Like his fellow 61,000-plus CAP members, Henderson is a volunteer. His day job, though, is an important part of his expertise — he’s a radar analyst for the U.S. Air Force’s 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron at the Western Air Defense Sector at McChord Air Force Base, Wash.

In addition to Henderson’s record of success, Ogden estimates he’s been involved in more than 30 saves and hundreds of finds during the more than 400 missions he’s participated in during more than seven years in cell phone forensics, which relies on data from cellular towers.

That source of information wasn’t available in the Smiths’ case, said Ogden, who like Henderson has been in CAP for more than two decades.

“Due to the terrain and being in such a remote location, there’s no chance of getting a cell phone signal when you’re on the ground near where the plane dropped off radar,” he said.

When such limitations exist, a search “can be extremely difficult,” Henderson said. “It can be like sifting through and trying to find a (certain) piece of sand.”

Idaho Wing Commander Col. Mike Vorachek said CAP is providing high-bird communication links, while four helicopters searched for the missing plane. “We’re yielding our airspace to the helicopters, because they can get so much lower,” he said.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Vorachek said CAP aircrews flew more than 20 hours over the search area.

Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, is a nonprofit organization with 61,000 members nationwide, operating a fleet of 550 aircraft. CAP, in its Air Force auxiliary role, performs 90% of continental U.S. inland search and rescue missions as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and is credited by the AFRCC with saving an average of 80 lives annually. Its unpaid professionals also perform homeland security, disaster relief and drug interdiction missions at the request of federal, state and local agencies. The members play a leading role in aerospace education and serve as mentors to more than 26,000 young people currently participating in the CAP cadet programs. CAP received the World Peace Prize in 2011 and has been performing missions for America for 72 years.

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  1. says

    Years ago I was flying over Yakima Wash headed for Seattle.Below was a yellow airliner.(The Banana Airlines. ) Later I was able to choose the Paint Color for a Seabee and I had it painted yellow with red and orange stripes down the side.It was beautiful.A color that would show up should one have an emergency,and go down in the trees or snow. I flew this Seabee to Ketchikan, Alaska.Sadly it was later damaged while tied down,by high winds.White aircraft are not for winter flying over mountains,should an emergency occur.My prayers are for the occupants and families of the downed Bonanza.

  2. says

    First off, my heart goes out to the families of these victims. I hope they get closure on this sooner than later. Unfortunately, the headline for this article is a little misleading and may actually contribute to the delay in finding this airplane. There is no cell phone coverage within miles of this area. Radar coverage below about 11,000′ is impossible because of the mountains. If the search area is based solely on the forensic evidence of the CAP Radar Analysis Team, the search area may have been unreliably “narrowed” to an area where the airplane isn’t. This technique may be a valuable and accurate search tool when used within its parameters but its usefulness in this particular scenario may have been extrapolated beyond its capabilities. With new snow and sub-zero temperatures the chances of finding this airplane until spring are diminishing.

    • Krista Morisen says

      As a member of Civil Air Patrol, I can assure you that the Cell Phone forensics are but one tool we use to locate missing aircraft. The organization will use all available resources to locate this aircraft, and while I am not a member of Idaho Wing, I can say within most of the organization, we primarily use Direction Finding (DF) equipment specifically designed for Emergency Locator Transmitters for searching. We have aircraft equipped with DF equipment as well as well trained volunteers working diligently and I am sure working diligently with all local authorities as well. As soon as the aircraft has narrowed down the area, we then send in ground crews who can further narrow it down. Now, this is not always successful, unfortunately. However, the organization will do all it can to locate this aircraft with all available resources.

  3. Joseph says

    I’ve wondered a few times if it would possible to put a cellphone “tower” on an search plane. Fly the gird, and if the phone is still on it will connect to the “tower” and then you can do a few passes and you would be able to triangulate the location of the phone. (You may find several hits this way, but with the right equipment you can identify the specific phone) I’m sure there are FCC and FAA regs that would get in the way, but I think the interference could be minimized to an acceptable level. Though I guess if the ELT isn’t transmitting the likely hood of a phone still working might be slim.

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