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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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.
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