Saturday, September 08, 2007

Air Force continues search for missing adventurer

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFPN) -- Air Force Rescue Coordination Center officials here continue to provide critical search and rescue support in the multistate effort to find Steve Fossett, an adventurer missing since Sept. 3.

The extensive coordination and support effort includes coordination with officials from across the United States.

To find Mr. Fossett, AFRCC officials are working with members from the Western Air Defense Sector at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., Nevada, California, Utah and Colorado Civil Air Patrols, Nevada and California Offices of Emergency Services; Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada; the Nevada Army and Air National Guard; and Civil Air Patrol Headquarters at Maxwell AFB, Ga.

"It's unity of effort. You have state, local and federal resources coordinating to help find Mr. Fossett in a timely manner," said Lt. Col. Jed Hudson, the AFRCC commander.

The effort began with an alert notice from the Federal Aviation Administration's Reno Flight Service Station at 3:40 p.m. Sept. 3, said Justin Hynes, the AFRCC watch supervisor. They informed AFRCC controllers that tail number 240NR (Mr. Fossett's aircraft) was reported overdue.

"Immediately, we started coordinating for federal search and rescue assets available in the area," Mr. Hynes said. "We use radar data, source leads and terrain information to coordinate grid searches. The extent and length of time we spend on any area is based on the probability of success. High density terrain (mountains, wooded areas) is usually a key factor in prolonged search operations."

"With this tough terrain, it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack," Mr. Hynes said.

One method used to aid in the search for Mr. Fossett is radar forensics, or "data reduction," which is the analysis of raw radar data from around the U.S. This process compares radar data to radar hits from known aircraft operating under visual flight rules, or VFR. These aircraft "squawk" either a unique air traffic control assigned code or a generic VFR code of 1,200 on their transponder, an avionics device that ATC radar controllers use to follow the flight of aircraft in their area.

Had Mr. Fossett requested flight following, he would have been assigned a unique transponder code that would have made his flight track much easier to trace.

Once all known flight paths are removed from the radar data, the remaining radar "hits" are correlated for possible flight paths of unknown aircraft.

"Historically, when radar forensics lead us to the last known position, we usually find the objective within three nautical miles of that position," Colonel Hudson said.

Another method of detecting aircraft in distress is through an onboard emergency locator transmitter, called an ELT. An ELT is essentially a specialized radio beacon.

Special SAR equipment mounted on some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellites can "hear" these distress signals and transmit an approximate location to SAR controllers in the AFRCC, Colonel Hudson said.

Mr. Fossett's aircraft was equipped with a 121.5 megahertz ELT that should automatically activate upon impact with the ground, but can manually be activated as well. It is notorious for transmitting false alerts and takes two or more satellite passes to correlate a possible location of a distressed aircraft. No ELT signal was ever received by AFRCC controllers.

The 406 MHz ELT, a new digital beacon containing a unique ID number is now commercially available.

Improvements to the new beacon include location of 1-3 NM (two to five kilometers) accuracy on average, global coverage, instantaneous alert time, and a Doppler location from a single satellite pass, Mr. Hynes said. It also has accuracy of less than 100 yards with GPS-equipped 406 MHz beacons.

Search and recovery efforts will continue despite the deactivation of the 121.5 and 243.0 signal, Colonel Hudson said.

"The bottom-line is, we will continue to coordinate the rescue of any known personnel in distress," Colonel Hudson said.

The AFRCC will continue its investigative work in coordination with the incident commanders on location, said Tech. Sgt. Roberto Gerald, an AFRCC SAR controller.

"The situation remains as an active search mission and we are still investigating many leads," Sergeant Gerald said. "Mr. Fossett's probability of survival is increased because of his survival experiences as an adventurer."

On any given day the AFRCC operates with one watch supervisor and three to four SAR controllers working 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, all year. Each controller may be handling up to seven or eight incidents and or missions at a time.