The Civil Air Patrol’s National Radar Analysis and National Cell Phone Forensics teams combined efforts Jan. 30 to lead searchers in south central Alaska to a crashed Cessna 180 and the three people aboard.
The three were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew flying along the track provided by the radar analysis team, Lt. Col. John Henderson, the team’s vice commander, said.
“They had to fly very low and slow because weather was moving in — it was in the low 20s and snow was starting — and it was just about sundown,” he said. “Just before they had to abandon the search, they located the crash.”
“I know they would not have been located tonight without our data,” he added.
The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center alerted the radar team late Jan. 29 that the plane had been reported missing. Five team members began working on data for a flight from the Cessna’s planned route — west from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula.
“We worked for hours tracking dozens of aircraft trying to find the right one,” Henderson said.
A couple of promising tracks didn’t pan out, and emergency locator transmitter reports over the Kenai Peninsula couldn’t be tracked down, he said.
“We got recordings from the tower that gave us a firm takeoff time, and we were able to locate a ‘search only’ track that flew north across the sound, then west,” he explained. “This track really wasn’t going towards the destination, but we felt we had the right guy. He was flying very low and was in and out of very good radar coverage.”
After the radar team lost that track, it passed the data to the Rescue Coordination Center, which in turn contacted the cell phone team’s Maj. Justin Ogden.
“He was able to get some cell data that corresponded to the end of our track,” Henderson said.
“We did not see anything crossing back across the sound towards Kenai, so we felt he was still on the north side of the water. AK-RCC was concentrating their efforts over Kenai based on the earlier ELT reports.
“The team did find a track ‘search only’ that went straight north into the mountains, but put it aside because it was going the wrong direction. Then AK-RCC got another ELT report north of where our new track led, so we quickly passed that track to AK-RCC.”
The Coast Guard helicopter dispatched to follow that track found the downed plane and the three survivors.
Civil Air Patrol, the longtime all-volunteer U.S. Air Force auxiliary, is the newest member of the Air Force’s Total Force. In this role, CAP operates a fleet of 560 aircraft, performs about 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. CAP’s 56,000 members perform homeland security, disaster relief and drug interdiction missions at the request of federal, state and local agencies. Operating as a nonprofit organization, CAP also plays a leading role in STEM/aerospace education, and its members serve as mentors to 24,000 young people participating in CAP’s Cadet Programs.