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If You Want to Be Found... Leave a Trail

Recently, an ultralight pilot departed his local air patch for a brief local pleasure flight. He hadn't returned by fuel-exhaust time, and his worried wife called the airport to ask about him. Airport security could tell her that the aircraft wasn’t there, but the FSS reported that there was no flight plan or itinerary, and so they had no way of telling where the aircraft might be. The pilot’s wife didn’t believe that a search was needed until daylight, but the skeptics in the FSS began conducting field checks, asked high flyers to listen out for ELTs on 121.5 MHz, and advised the rescue coordination centre (RCC). The RCC called the search and rescue (SAR) squadron, which started cranking the gears to get the duty Herc and its crew airborne.

Shortly after, the pilot’s wife decided that a search would be a great idea. While the duty SAR Herc was preparing to launch, the FSS contacted a local pilot familiar with the missing pilot's modus operandi. This pilot took off and, shortly afterwards, picked up a "Mayday" call from the missing aircraft. He relayed the crash position information to the FSS, and a local helicopter was sent to pick up the missing pilot.

As luck would have it, the missing pilot's misadventure had started shortly after takeoff. He had met some difficulty while operating at a low level and at low power settings, and made a forced landing. The eventual landing site was not one that enjoyed radio contact with the FSS, and so he had been unable to alert others to his flight.

At first glance, this appears to be one of those all's-well-that-ends-well episodes from which we can glean no useful lessons, but there are a couple of points to ponder. For one thing, the pilot was flying an ultralight. This means that he probably didn’t have an ELT. Thus, in the event of a crash or forced landing, he had no ready means of transmitting a constant distress signal on 121.5 MHz. Not having this safeguard means that another safeguard becomes even more important. And what safeguard is that?

That safeguard is the flight plan, the flight notification, or the flight itinerary. Sure, these things have been around for years, but how many people believe that they are useful for emergency purposes? Unfortunately, too few. However, flight plans, etc., are really a pilot's first line of defence in the unlikely event of a crash or forced landing. ELTs, as good as they are, can be consumed by a post-crash fire, submerged in a lake, or simply damaged beyond operability.

Flight plans are a different matter. ATS folks are extremely eager to log an equal number of takeoffs and landings over a period of time. If one of their little sparrows takes off and doesn't come back, they get extremely concerned, and start doing frequency searches, airfield searches, and many things "you have not Association, which will quickly start a search.

In this instance, the lack of a flight plan led to considerable uncertainty — uncertainty that was resolved by the FSS taking the action that would normally be taken to locate an overdue aircraft. But what prompted them to take the action? The inquiry from the pilot’s wife. So far, so good. However, she didn't have the information needed to be of much help, that is, where the pilot was going and how long he was expected to be gone.

In this case, the weather was good and there were no serious injuries. But let's change a couple of things. Let's suppose that a rapidly moving cold front rolled through the area well after the time that the pilot intended to be back, but before any alarm had been raised. Let’s suppose, too, that serious injuries had resulted during the forced landing. Then what? The outcome could have been sadly different.

Sure, filing a flight plan, etc., can be a drag, but not filing one can lead to results that are even more of a drag. In this instance, a pilot spent an unexpected night in the wilderness and was apparently little the worse for it. However, the potential for disaster was there. If you're one of those hardy individualists who says, "A plague on NAV CANADA and all of its works," you might want to do a quick attitude check; they're nice people, really, and they’re there to help you. If you must express yourself by ignoring them, find a trusted agent, such as a spouse or a friend, and tell him her or it: "I'm going flying along this route from A to B to C and back to A, and if I'm not back by nine o'clock tonight, call the FSS and tell them that I'm down somewhere along that route." Additional information, such as the colour of the aircraft, the number of people on board, and the survival gear and radios on board would also be useful for this person to have.

Yes, this episode ended well, but it did so through good luck, not good management. This pilot bet his life on good luck. Would you be as lucky as he was?

Originally Published: ASL 1/1998
Original Article: If You Want to Be Found...Leave a Trail 

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We would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada for this initiative through the Search and Rescue New Initiative Fund (SAR NIF).