The Rest of the Story

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Earlier this year I was presented with an opportunity. There was a winter Field Training Exercise and no one was available to take the cadets from the Payson Squadron. It would involve driving the cadets up to the top of the Mogollon Rim where we would join other cadets and senior members at a campsite in the Tonto National Forest. I do a lot of hiking and have quite a bit of experience with camping, so I volunteered.

We left Payson Friday evening and arrived at the specified location, where a forest road left Highway 87, at about 8:30 p.m. From there we drove back into the forest to a large campsite where everyone set up their tents. It was supposed to be a winter exercise in the snow, but while the temperatures dipped to the mid-teens at night, they climbed into the high 50s during the day and there was no snow to be seen.

The next morning I learned more of what this FTX was all about. Our leader and instructor, Scott Kozakiewicz, who goes by the nickname "Kozak" for obvious reasons, teaches a course at Arizona State University on wilderness survival. He is also a CAP Squadron Commander and a ground search leader. Our other instructor, Newton Muehleisen, is director of ground operations for the CAP Arizona Wing. It soon became evident that I would not just be camping out in the woods with some cadets. In his introductory remarks, Kozak talked about the need for more people who are certified as ground search team members. There are actually three levels of certification, and the training that weekend would be our first step to receiving the first level of certification.

As a mission pilot, I always thought we had the most critical part of the mission of finding a crash site. In an ideal case, a pilot in trouble would radio that he was going down and give his position, and his ELT would be activated during the crash landing. We would take off and quickly find his location based on the radio call and the signal from the ELT. I covered a more common scenario in last month's article: An airplane is reported missing. Flight plan information, reports from friends and radar tapes gradually narrow the search area. After several days of searching the crash site is located.

In both of these scenarios, I figured that once the wreckage is located, a ground team is dispatched to the site and arrives at the scene a short time later, directed by the crew in the search airplane flying overhead or by GPS coordinates relayed by that crew. Kozak quickly dispelled that idea. While it is possible to have wreckage located in an easily accessible spot, he said that airplanes are much more likely to crash in remote, rugged terrain. Since weather is often a factor in a crash, the weather may also be terrible for the ground search. There may not be any roads or trails in the area. This means that the search team will have to follow a compass course through the woods, up and down ravines, in bad weather, sometimes in the dark, to try to find the crash site. Because it can take days to locate the wreckage, the ground search team has to be prepared to survive in the woods during that time.

Kozak first taught us how to follow a compass course. Just like pilots, ground search team members need to know about the difference between true north and magnetic north (declination) and be able to plot the line to magnetic north

on the map, which is oriented to true north. After drawing a line from our present position to the desired destination, we needed to determine the correct magnetic heading to that location. We were then shown how to use the compass to select an object along the desired course, walk to that object, select another object up ahead, and so forth until we reached the destination.

After a few practice exercises we were ready to test our skills in the woods. Following a compass course in an area without obstructions is relatively easy. You can select an object quite some distance away, walk quickly to that object, select the next object, and thus reach your objective in a relatively short amount of time. Everything becomes more difficult in the woods where you can only see a few hundred feet ahead, and the tree or bush you picked to walk to seems to disappear when you get close. After struggling for a while, Kozak showed up to help us out. He suggested that we have two of our team members (ground search teams always stay in pairs for safety) walk ahead directed by someone with a compass so they stay on the desired course. That person then yells for them to stop, everyone catches up with them, and the process is repeated. This went much smoother, and we soon found ourselves leapfrogging through the woods at a much faster pace than before.

Even with our new found skills, it still took five hours to complete a four-mile triangle. The many areas of prickly brush and downed trees didn't help. However, it was very exciting after five hours of following the compass through the woods to come out just a short distance from our starting point. We were told to get some supper, rest and get ready for the next exercise. We would use our new skills to navigate through the woods at night, find some lost hikers and bring them out of the woods. The fact that we were given folding cloth stretchers made it very likely that one or more of the lost hikers would simulate being injured.

Three teams were dropped off at different locations so we could approach the area where the hikers were believed to be from different angles, improving our odds of locating them. We employed our new found skills, guiding a team of two ahead with a glow stick, telling them to stop, then catching up with them and starting again. Soon we located the "lost" hikers,

one of whom had a simulated broken leg. We stabilized the broken leg, loaded the individual on a stretcher, determined the shortest route to the nearest road, and carried her out through the brush and trees to the road. The next morning we were taught one more skill before breaking camp and heading home-how to do everything we learned while walking spread out in a search line to increase the chances of finding a crash site.

There are actually two other common scenarios to add to the two at the beginning of this article. The worst case is when a pilot takes off on a long trip without filing a flight plan and is reported missing days later by a friend or family member. This has actually happened with an airplane flying across the country. They left Florida and didn't show up in California. Without any additional information there is not much anyone can do. The search area is just too large.

The last scenario involves an airplane that went down in a known area but has not been located by searching from the air. In that case, it will be up to ground search teams to try to find the location of the crash. Sometimes they are successful, and sometimes, as in the case of the Learjet that crashed in New Hampshire several years ago, the wreckage is located years later by hikers or hunters. It is truly amazing how an aircraft can crash in a wooded area without even a trace of evidence visible from the air.

This experience gave me a new respect for the skills of the ground search teams and the difficulties they encounter trying to locate a crash site or a missing hiker. It also made it clear how important it is to make it as easy as possible for searchers to find you if you crash. Nobody thinks they are going to crash. We call that invulnerability. Pilots get lax about filing flight plans or using flight following. We call that complacency. If you don't want your life to depend on people walking through the woods in a line in the rain trying to find you, I strongly recommend you do the following:

  • File a flight plan.

  • If you are not on an IFR flight plan, use flight following whenever possible.

  • If you are not on flight following, make occasional reports to flight service.

  • At the first sign of trouble let someone know where you are and what is happening.

  • Make sure your ELT has a charged battery and is working well.

  • Carry at least the minimum survival equipment, such as a signal mirror, whistle, water and space blanket.

It is wonderful that there are dedicated people who are prepared and willing to spend days or even weeks in the woods searching for a lost aircraft. However, they would undoubtedly rather be home with their families, and the odds of survival for the pilot and passengers quickly dwindle as time passes, so let's make ourselves as easy to find as possible in the event we don't make it to our destination safely.