Everybody in the country, it seems, heard the terrible news: Two 14-year-old boys, Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, had gone out fishing near their south Florida home July 24. They were last seen when they bought more than 100 gallons of fuel at 1:30 in the afternoon and headed out of the Jupiter Inlet. They’d been expected to stay inshore, but apparently changed their minds. Their parents got worried when they hadn’t returned home by 5 p.m.
The Coast Guard’s search and rescue function swung into high gear, and searched until dark. By 11 the following morning, they’d located the overturned 19-foot fishing boat some 67 miles offshore of Daytona Beach, but there was no sign of the boys.
The frantic parents contacted SkyWords Advertising, a banner towing and drone operation based out of West Palm Beach. They wanted the small company to tow a banner along the beach offering a $100,000 reward for the boys’ rescue. Proprietors Hadley Doyle-Gonzalez and Jorge Gonzales assembled the banner immediately, hoping that people on the beach would see the banner and know to look out for them.
“Whoa,” cautioned the Coast Guard and law-enforcement officers. It was, they warned, a bad idea to get everybody and his fortune-hunting brother out there, miles offshore, willy-nilly, enticed by the huge reward, getting in the way, becoming part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
The banner idea was shelved, but Jorge Gonzalez took off in his Super Cub to take a look himself. Jorge enlisted the help of a relative, and the two small airplanes flew up and down the coastline for three days. No joy.
Through social media, news networks, frantic relatives, and friends, word of the missing boys spread like wildfire, and so did volunteer efforts to look for them. Four days in, more than 80,000 visitors had logged onto the Facebook page “Find Austin and Perry.”
Hadley and Jorge were impressed by the widespread attempts to help, but concerned about how fast the informal search had grown. Even without the reward, hundreds of GA pilots, beachcombers, and boaters rushed out to look for the lost boys, hoping to find some sign that they had survived.
While it was true that more eyes meant more chances of rescuing them, the Gonzalezes realized that coordination, especially with the aircraft search, would be needed to stay safe, to not waste precious time, and maximize the chances of success.
They contacted the nearest Coast Guard Station to offer to help bring some order out of potential aviation chaos.
Coast Guard officials must have had misgivings about working with Hadley and Jorge to involve civilians in the search. But well-meaning lookers were going to be out there anyway, so they might as well have some direction. Every night at 9 p.m., the Gonzalezes would receive a briefing outlining the Coast Guard’s search coordinates planned for the following day. The SkyWords office would then plot the Coast Guard’s coordinates on their own search chart, and search grids and altitudes to assign to volunteer pilots. Civilian pilots were directed to remain clear of the official search areas.
“We had told the family we had a business to run, but that we’d do everything in our power to find the boys, and to help coordinate the search,” said Hadley Doyle-Gonzales. “We didn’t know what we were getting into.”
Meals, sleep, and family time with the couple’s 6-year-old son took a back seat to answering the phone and emails, poring over charts, plotting search areas, and assigning aircraft to cover them, based on aircraft capabilities and location, keeping track of who was where.
Pilots offering to join the massive effort were directed to send their names, contact information, aircraft type and tail number, when and where they could fly, how far offshore, and how many seats they could offer spotters.
“We tried to pair each airplane with its capabilities,” Jorge explained. “We tasked single-engine aircraft close to the shore. The multis we could send further out, and the turbos could send even further offshore. We had some great airplanes — a 414, a twin Bonanza, an Aztec, a Conquest — so we were able to get 100, 150 miles offshore. They knew what they were getting into. The PC-12 and the Eclipse jet were our longest days and we went out as far as the Hatteras Buoy.”
In designing the search patterns, Jorge said, “I’d reached out to a friend who had flown as a spotter for the Coast Guard Auxiliary.”
He advised flying slow, 500 feet over the water for a 10-mile leg, turning 90°, flying another mile, and then turning 90° back for 10 miles, and so forth.
“We told the pilots to report the geographic coordinates for anything they thought might warrant a closer look,” he said. “All sightings of possible items of interest were taken seriously, and the position and time transmitted to the Coast Guard search unit. The civilian searchers shared a common communications frequency, which the Coasties were able to monitor, and over which they could advise any possibly conflicting aircraft to get out of the way.”
“We also told the volunteers to keep a careful eye on the weather out there. We had a cold front stalled out over our search area, and asked our pilots to use their own best judgment,” Jorge added.
Thanks to the outreach efforts, the Gonzalezes were swamped with general aviation pilots volunteering to help search for the boys. At last count, the search had 104 pilots, and many more observers.
Volunteer pilots and spotters flew all up and down the Atlantic coast, from Virginia to the southern tip of Florida, and some volunteers came from as far west as Indiana. One pilot would go fly a tank of gas, complete his search pattern, and come back, refuel, and ask for another search area.
“He flew three missions a day for four days,” marvels Hadley. “People like him made it their own personal cause. They really took it to heart. He and his daughter went out so many days in a row, searching.”
It’s people like that who give general aviation a good name.
Some pilots accepted help with their fuel expenses, but most did not. They all swore that if their kids were missing, they’d want to see to it that everything possible was done.
One such public spirited aviator is Dion Viventi, manager of the Elizabeth City Airport in North Carolina, and a member of both the Civil Air Patrol and the Coast Guard Auxiliary. He got word of the search effort, and like so many others, he, in turn, fired off an email to his entire pilot list.
He and his wife, Amber, then hopped in their Cessna 150, and cruised down the beach from the Virginia state line southward along the Outer Banks, low and slow, all the way to Cape Fear, logging seven hours of flight time. He flew three miles offshore so he could see the entire shoreline for five miles.
“It’s not easy to fly, it’s not comfortable, but it’s better than nothing,” he reported. “The flight conditions and lighting were perfect, but even so, our eyes would play tricks on us. Is that a reflection? A piece of trash? Or something we need to take a closer look at? We saw dolphins, fish, and boats,” but no boys.
Meanwhile, the boys’ families hired a couple of other private aviation firms to search as well, bringing more sophisticated equipment and techniques to the search. Oceanographers offered input as to sea currents and possible drift patterns.
A week after Perry and Austin went missing, the Coast Guard finally called off the unsuccessful search, having crisscrossed the southeast Atlantic coastal waters with C-130s, helicopters, and cutters.
Civilian boaters and pilots continued to keep an eye out, hoping against hope something positive will turn up. But on Aug. 10, the families also called off their search.
Even though it it didn’t have a happy ending, the unprecedented grass-roots effort by the general aviation community left Hadley and Jorge “speechless and in awe of how generous the GA community is.”
“Do you realize what we’re doing with this GA effort? I just don’t get the bigness, of how many pilots were involved,” Hadley said. “It was truly a great effort on everybody’s behalf, and I am proud to have been a part of it.”
The organizers hope to arrange a gathering later in the year for all the pilots and crews involved in the search, to give those involved in the search a chance to share their experiences.
“I want to shake their hands,” said Jorge.
To learn more about the fly-in, you can reach out to the couple at Hadley@SuperSkywords.com.
Meanwhile, the boys’ families hope to use much of the money raised through a GoFundMe campaign to raise awareness, reminding boaters that a pretty day can turn ugly in a hurry, that even a nice-size craft isn’t safe way offshore in stormy weather. They want to emphasize that life jackets do no good unless boaters are wearing them. Most especially, they want those who go offshore to remember that the now-affordable ePirbs and Personal Locator Devices, properly activated in an emergency, are worth their weight in gold.