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Search and Rescue

by Rogers V. Shaw, II
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

In the unlikely event that your aircraft crashes, you should be very aware of search and rescue procedures, and what you can do to improve your survival odds. After a crash, how can you best utilize the resources available to accomplish the survival goal'rescue?

We need to distinguish between these two key words, search and rescue. What does the term "search and rescue" mean? If rescue personnel don't know where you are, it's a search. If they do know where you are, then it's a rescue.

What can you do to help in the search phase? The key to your survival is to shorten the time from the crash to rescue. Obviously, if the rescue team doesn't know your location, then it will take a lot longer for them to find you.

How much longer? The average time from the last known position (LKP) to rescue is 31 hours. Since this is an average, one could be a survivor for a few hours'or a few days. To assure that the LKP is known, as a pilot, your key survival effort begins by filing a flight plan. It is a road map of your in-flight movements and is the cheapest insurance available. How cheap? It's free. The types of flight plans filed will greatly affect the time you may have to survive during a search phase.

Flight Plan Average Time from LKP to Rescue

  • Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), 13 hours 6 minutes
  • Visual Flight Rules (VFR), 37 hours 18 minutes
  • No Flight Plan, 42 hours 24 minutes
  • It is very easy to see how important it is to have a flight plan on file with a Flight Service Station.

Communications: A Key to Aircrew Survival

It's important to understand how the rescue personnel are put into action. When an aircraft is overdue, missing, or sends a radio distress call, the National Search and Rescue Plan is activated. There are many organizations and volunteers associated with search and rescue (SAR), but the Federal government assumes overall responsibility. The National SAR plan designates the U.S. Coast Guard as responsible for maritime SAR and the U.S. Air Force for inland SAR.

All SAR activities in the contiguous 48 states are coordinated through the full-time Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. When a call on a missing or overdue aircraft is received by the Center, the National SAR Plan is activated.

When Is a Flight "Overdue?"

If a flight plan is filed, the air traffic control system will automatically initiate a plan to locate overdue flights. When an aircraft on a VFR flight plan is overdue by one hour, or by 30 minutes on an IFR flight plan, the Flight Service Station servicing the destination airport issues an INREQ (Information Request). If a flight plan was not filed, there is no designated time limit before a search is initiated, thus greatly delaying the onset of search and rescue.

The following summarizes the actions that are used to locate a downed aircraft.

Search Process Phase Description

Uncertainty. The Information Request (INREQ) is initiated. The FAA and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center conduct a Preliminary Communications (PRECOM) search. Because of the high rate of false alarms, this phase is designed to determine if an aircraft is really missing or if a crew neglected to close their flight plan. If the PRECOM comes up negative, then the next phase is activated.

Alert or Alert Notice (ALNOT).

The ALNOT will be issued at the end of the INREQ or when the estimated time that the missing aircraft's fuel would be exhausted or when there is serious concern regarding the safety of the aircraft and its occupants.

At this phase, the destination airport checks all ramps and hangers to locate the aircraft. Local law enforcement agencies in the search area are notified and all information is sent to the AFRCC. If the ALNOT fails to find the aircraft, then the final phase is activated.

Distress. At this point, the actual search mission is launched. Air search efforts will not begin until first daylight, unless there is a functioning emergency locator transmitter (ELT) alerting a ground rescue party. If the weather permits, air rescue is dispatched to the distress location. Even with an ELT, terrain and weather may hinder response time. Chances are good of spending at least one night as a survivor.

It is very important to ensure that your aircraft's ELT is in good operating condition. The average time required to find a downed aircraft with a functioning ELT is 6.8 hours. Compare that time to 40.7 hours without an operating ELT and the benefits of properly maintaining emergency equipment be-come obvious.

Improving Survival Odds

Another important factor is the probability of death from serious injury: It increases substantially after 24 hours. How can the search phase be shortened? A flight plan filed with Flight Service, an operational ELT, and good communications will increase your chances of a quick response by rescue personnel.

Survival Equipment

One item to help you survive after a crash is a good personal survival kit aboard the aircraft. Be sure to read the next article, "Prepared for Anything" by Roger Storey, for a description of a good survival gear kit.

Fly safe and be smart.

Rogers Shaw, a former USAF pilot with 3,000 hours of flight time, manages the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute's (CAMI) Airman Education Program.

This article originally appeared on the FAA Web site for pilots under training, Airman Education Programs, http://www.faa.gov/pilots/training/airman_education/.