Search and Rescue

One of the primary responsibilities of the Flight Service division of ATC when it was created in 1920 was to keep track of VFR aircraft and if they did not arrive at their destination, to initiate search and rescue procedures.  IFR aircraft are under direct control by the Towers and Centers, but VFR aircraft are not required to file flight plans at this time unless they want someone to be aware of their movements.

According to the records, between 50 and 70 pilots per day nationally simply forget to cancel their flight plans by the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA).  Of those, about half will call and cancel within the first 30 minutes.  That leaves about 25 to 35 who cause us to start looking for them.

The first step taken in SAR is to determine whether or not the aircraft has landed at his destination and simply forgotten to cancel the flight plan.  If they landed at a towered airport during the time the tower is open, it is usually a short search.  If they land at an airport with an open FBO (Fixed Base Operator), the first thing we do is call the FBO, who very graciously sends someone outside to check all the tail numbers on the ramp.  FBO managers have earned a lot of gratitude from ATC over the decades for their gracious service.

AFSS’s have lists of phone numbers for every airport within their area of responsibility.  We usually call the airport manager next, but that is a business phone and if it is nighttime there may be no one there.  Frequently we call the sheriff or the state police and ask them to dispatch a unit to the airport to see if an aircraft with that tail number is on the ground.  If it is, the flight plan is simply cancelled.

Most of the time the pilots do not even remember that the flight plan was not cancelled, if we find them we normally do not send it on to Flight Standards.  The exception is a pilot who chronically forgets to close.

The first official step in SAR begins at 30 minutes after the ETA with a QALQ.  This is a request sent by the destination AFSS to the filing facility, wherein we are asking them to send the whole flight plan.  What most of you do not know is depending on who you filed with, we may not have your full flight plan when you activate.  If you filed with any Flight Service we have the data, but when you file with DUATs, a military baseops or another private vendor the only information we have is: VFR, Aircraft ID, type of aircraft, departure airport, destination airport, Proposed Time and Estimated Time Enroute.

When the departure station receives the QALQ message, they research their records for the flight plan and any subsequent contacts with that aircraft and squirt it back to Flight Service.   Now we can look for the pilot’s data – name and phone number primarily.  This is where we have come to love cell phones.  Briefers at Flight Service hate those things when we are briefing someone who is on a ramp in the wind with a noisy engine behind him, but they have significantly changed our ability to find someone who has simply forgotten to close a flight plan.

If it is a home phone, we will call there and hope to find you.  If someone’s wife or husband answers we try to identify ourselves and ask if they know where you are without alarming them.  If no one is at the phone number, or if they do not know where you are, then we prepare to expand our search. Of course we leave a message with them to have you call us whenever you get in.

At one hour after the ETA the real work begins and we begin to be concerned that there is a possibility that you encountered conditions which forced you to land somewhere besides where you wanted to.  We send out an INREQ, or information request, to all the Air Traffic Facilities along your route of flight, and we copy the information received from them to the national Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) giving them a heads up.

All AFSS’s, ARTCC’s and DUATs are required to check their records to see if there has been any contact with your aircraft.  It comes in handy if you have called Flight Watch and given a pilot report – which will automatically include a position report – or had any other contact with air traffic.  If so, it narrows our search corridor from that point to your intended destination.

We are also required to have someone physically check ALL airports within 50 miles either side of the route to see if the aircraft landed short.  Do you know how many airports there are in southern California between San Diego and San Francisco?  If so, you have a clue as to how much effort goes into this step.   This includes little dirt runways out in the middle of the desert as well as places as big as LAX.

Though this procedure normally takes more than an hour, if the pilot still has not been located and his ETA is exceeded by two hours, we must send out an ALNOT or Alert Notice.  We continue with the communications search as the Rescue Coordination Center begins to organize an air/ground search and calls in the Civil Air Patrol.

An ALNOT remains current until the aircraft is located – or the Rescue Coordination Center gives up the search – usually at least three weeks. If you are not on a flight plan, concerned family members can initiate the SAR process by phoning flight service.  Be sure they have your Aircraft ID because all of our data is based on it – not on the pilot’s name.

There is a service available to VFR pilots that greatly enhances our ability to find them.   A position reporting device installed and registered will monitor your flight and detect if you stop moving, stop reporting, or send an SOS.  This allows them to initiate Search and Rescue procedures sooner (versus waiting until you are 30 minutes overdue), and the position history narrows the search area dramatically if an actual search is required.

Statistics show that if people survive a crash landing, their chances are good if they can be located within 24 hours.  Help Flight Service help you by doing two things.  File VFR flight plans that are less than 4 hours in length.  The pilot who wants to save himself some effort by filing a 12 hour flight plan from Olivia, Minnesota to Medford, Oregan is doing himself a real disservice if he doesn’t show up – that’s one heck of a search area.

Please give position reports, better yet – give pilot reports.  That way Flight Service will have a better idea on where to search.  Please do not file the phone number of your FBO if you are landing at an airport 1200 miles away.  If you know you will be staying at a hotel – just mention which one while filing a flight plan and we will grab a phone book.

Oh, yeah, and don’t forget to cancel your flight plan!